US bars en­try to teenage Afghan robot en­gi­neers

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

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

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