Denial of visa complex story
“Brain drain” fears a problem for science team
When six Afghan teenage girls were denied U.S. visas to enter an international robotics contest in Washington set for later this month, the unexplained decision seemed to be punishing the very ambitions U.S. agencies have long advocated for girls in Afghanistan, where many are denied educational opportunities.
But the story is more complicated than that.
Afghanistan, beset by insurgent violence and economic uncertainty, is suffering from a massive brain drain, according to Afghan and U.S. officials. Scholarship students, academic fellows and teachers who receive temporary visas to visit the United States often vanish into immigrant communities instead of returning home.
The growing phenomenon has made U.S. officials especially wary of approving visa requests — even for applicants like the robotics students who may otherwise deserve them — if they decide there is a risk the person will fail to return home.
“It is sad to say, but some of them do not come back,” said Elham Shaheen, a senior official at the Ministry of Higher Education who manages foreign-study policies. He said 10 percent of all Afghans who are awarded temporary visas for academic purposes in the United States or Europe defy immigration rules to remain there permanently.
Female students and faculty members, facing extra frustrations at home, are no exception. Several years ago, Shaheen said, 12 female university lecturers won scholarships to obtain MA degrees in economics in Germany. Of the 12, he said, “11 of them escaped.”
American officials here and in Washington have refused to discuss the case of the robotics team, but several pointed out that U.S. law “presumes” all temporary visa seekers intend to remain in the United States unless they are able to prove they have compellingly strong ties to their country.
Two members of the team, interviewed Thursday from their home city of Herat, said U.S. consular officers had asked about their ties to Afghanistan, whether they had relatives in the United States and whether they intended to return home after the competition.
Youth teams from about 150 countries will face off next week in the FIRST Global Challenge contest, created to promote international student interest in science, technology and math. Only one other team, from Gambia, was turned down.
Obtaining a visa is just the last of many daunting hurdles the female students face in their efforts to advance academically — long before they can even dream of traveling abroad.
Afghan families often oppose their daughters attending universities in Kabul or other cities, fearing for their safety and exposure to young men. Agencies that offer domestic scholarships, such as the nonprofit Asia Foundation, often have to negotiate with families or agree to support a male relative who can accompany the girl each semester.