The Afghan girls

The saga of a teenage robotics team de­nied en­try into U.S.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­post.com

kabul — 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 that 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 such as the robotics stu­dents who may oth­er­wise de­serve them — if of­fi­cials 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 mas­ter’s 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, cre­ated to pro­mote in­ter­na­tional stu­dent in­ter­est in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and math. Only one other team, from Gam­bia, was turned down.

“Each of us gave them writ­ten guar­an­tees from two gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees vouch­ing for our re­turn,” said Rod­aba Noori, 16, a mem­ber of the Afghan team that built a ball-sort­ing robot. “This is our coun­try. We have our life and fam­ily here,” she said. “How could we aban­don them and not re­turn af­ter the com­pe­ti­tion?”

Ob­tain­ing a visa, though, is just one of the 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.

Girls are also at a dis­ad­van­tage in English and math, be­cause Afghan fam­i­lies are more will­ing to pay for boys to take pri­vate classes. As a re­sult, more girls fail col­lege-en­trance ex­ams. To help even the bal­ance, the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment spon­sors exam-prep classes for girls, and ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials have es­tab­lished a 30 per­cent fe­male quota for all in-coun­try schol­ar­ships.

“There is a chain of bar­ri­ers for Afghan girls that re­quires a net­work of sup­port to over­come,” said Razia Stanikzai of the Asia Foun­da­tion in Kabul, whose job is to pro­mote Afghan fe­male stu­dents’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy.

Many Afghans, how­ever, view th­ese as “male” fields, and fam­i­lies may try to steer daugh­ters into nurs­ing or teach­ing, in­stead. To over­come such stereo­types, Stanikzai’s pro­gram spon­sors sci­ence fairs at pro­vin­cial schools, where girls demon­strate projects to fa­thers and male com­mu­nity el­ders. “We don’t want girls sit­ting at home and be­ing told that sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy are for boys,” she said.

Even stu­dents at such elite in­sti­tu­tions as the Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Afghanistan, where the U.S. Em­bassy has funded more than 400 schol­ar­ships for women, face prej­u­dice. Two fe­male in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy stu­dents said that in most of their classes, all of the other stu­dents were male and that some of their friends and rel­a­tives had no idea what they were study­ing — or why.

“Some of them tell us to change ma­jors, to do some­thing more ac­cept­able like nurs­ing or arts,” said Shamim Ali, 26, whose dream is to start her own IT com­pany. “This is a tra­di­tional so­ci­ety, and even the con­cept of IT is strange. Peo­ple think we are go­ing to be­come me­chan­ics or elec­tri­cians and climb up on lad­ders.”

When it comes to study­ing abroad, there are many op­por­tu­ni­ties, such as the Ful­bright pro­gram, which has sent 535 Afghan stu­dents — among them, 102 women — to the United States since 2002. There are also closer in­ter­na­tional uni­ver­si­ties in coun­tries such as In­dia, Iran and Bangladesh, which Afghan of­fi­cials are pro­mot­ing as cheaper, more com­fort­able places to study at a time of grow­ing anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment in the West.

Yet even ac­com­plished fe­male stu­dents can be thwarted by fam­ily re­sis­tance and com­pet­ing cul­tural pri­or­i­ties. Ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials de­scribed cases in which ap­pli­cants for for­eign schol­ar­ships turned out to be mar­ried, preg­nant and un­able to ac­cept by the time their tick­ets and visas came through.

One woman in Kabul named Rai­hana, 27, who ob­tained a schol­ar­ship to study eco­nomics in Bangladesh, said her older brother, the se­nior male in the fam­ily, at first re­fused to let her go, but her younger and more lib­eral brother fi­nally per­suaded him.

“Since my fa­ther was dead, he felt he had to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for me and my safety,” the woman said, “but the real rea­son was that he was mar­ried and he did not want his wife to study or travel. If I went, she would be jeal­ous and com­plain.”

The mem­bers of the robotics team said they, too, en­coun­tered re­sis­tance from their par­ents — not only to travel to the United States for the robotics con­test but also to fly cross-coun­try to Kabul, with its news of in­sur­gent bomb­ings, to ap­ply for their visas.

“We fi­nally con­vinced them, and in the end they were very happy, but it was a dif­fi­cult path,” said Yasamin Yas­in­zada, 16, who said her dream is to “be a pi­o­neer in robotics and set an ex­am­ple for other girls.”

She said it was “much eas­ier for boys, be­cause they are al­lowed to travel, but it helped that our coach was go­ing with us.”

De­spite her dis­ap­point­ment at be­ing turned down to visit the United States, where the robot will ap­pear at the com­pe­ti­tion with­out its cre­ators, Yas­in­zada said she still hopes to study abroad.

“The spe­cific place doesn’t mat­ter,” she said. “I just want to learn, in­ter­act, see other ways of life, come back home and put it all into prac­tice.”

JALIL REZAYEE/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Afghan girls work on robot ma­chin­ery in Herat on July 4. Six Afghan teenage girls were de­nied visas to travel to the United States for a con­test to be held his month.

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