US bars entry to teenage Afghan robot engineers
IT’S NOT easy to get robotics equipment through customs in Afghanistan, but that didn’t deter this plucky bunch.
For months, a team of six teenage girls has been scrambling to build a ball-sorting robot that will compete in an international competition. Other teams received their raw materials in March. But the box sent from America had been held up for months amid concerns about terrorism. So the young engineers improvised, building motorised machines from household materials.
They didn’t have time to waste if they were going to compete in the First Global Challenge, an international robotics competition to be held in Washington, DC, this month. Young teams from around the world face off against each other in an effort to engage people in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths). To participate, the girls from the city of Herat in western Afghanistan needed permission to travel to the US. So, after they convinced their parents to let them go, they made the 800km journey to the US Embassy in Kabul to apply for their visas. They did this twice, even though that location was targeted by a deadly truck bomb.
Things seemed to be lining up. But then the team got some bad news – their visa applications had been denied. Roya Mahboob, who founded Citadel software company in Afghanistan, and was the country’s first female technology chief executive, is one of the team’s sponsors. When the girls heard the news, she said: “They cried all day.
“The first time (they were rejected) it was very difficult talking with the students,” Mahboob said. “They’re young and they were very upset.”
Fatemah, 14, told Forbes: “We want to show the world we can do it. We just need a chance.”
The girls wrote on their competition page: “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.”
The US State Department does not comment on specific visa denials. According to recent State Department records, it’s particularly hard to get a business travel visa for the US from Afghanistan. Just 112 were granted in May.
First Global president and former congressman Joe Sestak was disappointed by the news and frustrated that the “extraordinarily brave young women” won’t be able to travel to the US and instead will have to watch their robot compete via Skype. Teams from Iraq, Iran and Sudan will be at the competition.
Mahboob is frustrated, but she thinks the teenagers serve as an inspiration. “In Afghanistan it’s a very man-dominated industry. The girls are showing at a young age that they can build something.” – Washington Post
The Afghanistan First Global team. PICTURE: COURTESY OF FIRST GLOBAL