Afghan all-girl robotics team denied entry to US for competition

Organisers of an international robotics competition say they're saddened that an all-girl team from Afghanistan have been denied visas to travel to the United States to participate in the world's first international robot Olympics for high-school students.

The six teenagers, aged between 14 and 16, from Herat won't be going to the inaugural FIRST Global robotics event in Washington DC in July - but their robot will.

They've all been rejected for the one-week travel visa - despite making the dangerous 800 kilometre journey - twice - to Kabul, to the American Embassy, to be interviewed.

Roya Mahboob, Afghanistan's first female tech CEO, who brought the girls together under the Digital Citizen Fund project told SBS World News it was a dangerous journey for the girls.

"We didn't get a reason why the students were denied" she said, speaking from New York. "They got very upset and the first time they were rejected they were crying all day". 

Ms Mahboob said the girls were brought to Kabul for a second chance in the hope that at least one or two of them could obtain a visa.

"But unfortunately" she said "all of them got denied."

Staff at the Consulate were polite, but she added "There are views that the number of visas for B1/B2 for Afghanistan is limited and that maybe their (US) Consular made the decision that this visa was not for our students .. or maybe because the students couldn't speak English and because of that they made their decision."

First robotics team in Herat

According to the competition's website, the six girls were the first robotic team with the Digital Citizen Fund in Herat.

The fund is a non-profit organisation which aims to empower youth and young women in developing countries to gain access to technology.

The team members are from Towhid, Malakai Jalalai and Hoze Karbas high schools who said they "want to develop and explore our minds and creativity and maybe unveil the genius inside of each one of us".

"This opportunity would allow us to invent, design, and create things that could possibly allow our community, our lives, and us," according to statement on the website.

"We want to make a difference and most breakthroughs in science, technology, and other industries normally start with the dream of a child to do something great. We want to be that child and pursue our dreams to make a difference in people's lives."

FIRST Global Challenge

The FIRST Global Challenge is open to students aged 15 to 18 with the common goal of increasing their knowledge of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

More than 160 national and five continental teams are participating in the event, including a team from Australia - the QLA Pineapples (Team Australia) based in Brisbane, made up of students from St Peter's Lutheran College and Grace Lutheran College.

The QLA Pineapples (Team Australia)
The QLA Pineapples (Team Australia) Source: FIRST Global

"We come together around our love for Robotics and all things FIRST," said their statement on the FIRST Global website.

It's not clear why Afghanistan's team has been denied visas but other countries such as Sudan, Iran, Iraq have, including Team Hope - a group of Syrian refugee youth who say they never gave up hope and ambition despite the difficult circumstances they faced after fleeing to Lebanon.

Watching from afar

Roya Mahboob says the girls' robots will travel to the US "and we're going to find a team of Afghan-American girls here to make them ready that they can compete and represent our students here."

The girls, meanwhile, will be watching their entry back in Herat via Skype.

Team Hope (Refugees)
Team Hope (Refugees) - young Syrian who say they never gave up hope. Source: FIRST Global

4 min read
Published 2 July 2017 at 8:49am
By Maya Jamieson