Afghan girls get to ro­bot con­test

Trump in­ter­ven­tion helps twice-re­jected team fix visa trou­ble

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - JOSH LEDERMAN

WASHINGTON — Twice re­jected for U. S. visas, an all-girls ro­bot­ics team from Afghanistan ar­rived in Washington early Satur­day af­ter an in­ter­ven­tion by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

The six- girl team and a chap­er­one com­pleted their jour­ney just af­ter mid­night from their home­town of Herat to en­ter their ball-sort­ing ro­bot in the three-day high school com­pe­ti­tion that starts to­day in the U.S. cap­i­tal. Await­ing them at the gate at Washington Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port were a U.S. spe­cial en­voy and Afghan Am­bas­sador Ham­dul­lah Mo­hib, who de­scribed it as a mo­ment of cel­e­bra­tion for his na­tion.

“Seven­teen years ago, this would not have been pos­si­ble at all,” Mo­hib said. “They rep­re­sent our as­pi­ra­tions and re­silience de­spite hav­ing been brought up in a per­pet­ual con­flict. These girls will be prov­ing to the world and the na­tion that noth­ing will pre­vent us from be­ing an equal and ac­tive mem­ber of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.”

In the short time since their visa dilemma drew global at­ten­tion, the girls’ case has be­come a flash point in the de­bate about Trump’s ef­forts to tighten en­trance to the U.S., in­clud­ing from many ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries. Afghanistan isn’t in­cluded in Trump’s tem­po­rary travel ban, but crit­ics have said the ban is em­blem­atic of a broader ef­fort to put a chill on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the U.S.

The girls’ story also has re­newed the fo­cus on the longer-term U.S. plans for aid­ing Afghanistan’s fu­ture, as Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­pares a new mil­i­tary strat­egy that will in­clude send­ing more troops to the coun­try where the U.S. has been fight­ing since 2001. De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis said Fri­day that the strat­egy was mov­ing for­ward but was “not fi­nal­ized yet.”

Trump’s per­sonal in­ter­ven­tion last week, us­ing a rare “pa­role” mech­a­nism to side­step the visa sys­tem, ended a saga in which the girls twice trav­eled from their home in western Afghanistan through largely Tal­iban-con­trolled ter­ri­tory to Kabul, only to have their visa ap­pli­ca­tions de­nied.

The U.S. won’t say why the girls were re­jected for visas, cit­ing con­fi­den­tial­ity. But Mo­hib said that based on dis­cus­sions with U.S. of­fi­cials, it ap­pears the girls were re­buffed be­cause of con­cerns that they would not re­turn to Afghanistan. It’s a fate that has be­set many Afghans seek­ing en­try to the U.S. in re­cent years as con­tin­u­ing vi­o­lence and eco­nomic chal­lenges lead many to seek asy­lum in Amer­ica, or to travel through the U.S. to Canada to try to re­set­tle there.

As the team’s case gained at­ten­tion, Trump in­ter­vened by ask­ing Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fi­cials to find a way for them to travel, of­fi­cials said. Ul­ti­mately, the State Depart­ment, which ad­ju­di­cates visa ap­pli­ca­tions, asked the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment to let them in on “pa­role,” a tem­po­rary sta­tus used only in ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances to let in some­one who is oth­er­wise in­el­i­gi­ble to en­ter the coun­try.

The U.S. granted pa­role af­ter de­ter­min­ing that it con­sti­tuted a “sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic ben­e­fit.”

Am­bas­sador Alice Wells, the act­ing U.S. spe­cial en­voy for Afghanistan and Pak­istan, down­played con­cerns that the girls might use the pa­role to stay in the U.S. or go to Canada. As she drove to the air­port to greet the girls, she said by phone that they were proud to rep­re­sent Afghanistan and “proud to re­turn to be role mod­els to others around them.”

Com­pet­ing against en­trants from more than 150 coun­tries, the girls will present a ro­bot they de­vised that can rec­og­nize blue and orange and sort balls into cor­rect lo­ca­tions. They’ll also be feted at a re­cep­tion at the Afghan Em­bassy at­tended by sup­port­ers who had pe­ti­tioned the U.S. to let them in.

The Tal­iban, who ruled the war-torn coun­try be­fore be­ing ousted by a U.S.-led coali­tion in 2001, de­nied school­ing to girls. Wells said that since 2002, the num­ber of Afghan chil­dren at­tend­ing school has in­creased from about 900,000 — vir­tu­ally all boys — to 9 mil­lion, with 40 per­cent of them girls.

“We’re look­ing to en­sure that Afghanistan con­tin­ues its tra­jec­tory to sta­bi­liz­ing po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally,” Wells said. “It’s young women like these that are go­ing to be the fu­ture of Afghanistan.”

AP/MAS­SOUD HOSSAINI

Mem­bers of an all-girls ro­bot­ics team from Herat, Afghanistan, pre­pare to leave Kabul for their flight Fri­day to the U.S. It took some do­ing, but they fi­nally ar­rived early Satur­day in Washington.

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