Burundi robotics team’s vanishing sparked panic
Coach Canesius Bindaba describes a frantic search after teens slipped away
Outside Bujumbura International Airport in the capital city of Burundi, six teenagers bound for Washington, D.C., to compete in an international robotics competition locked hands with parents and relatives to pray one last time before boarding their flight. In Kirundi, their native language, Coach Canesius Bindaba asked God to bless their journey to the United States.
“I prayed that God may keep us safe on this trip,” Bindaba said.
When Bindaba uttered those words, he said he had no idea that the teens — likely with the help of their families — had orchestrated a secret bid to stay behind and possibly seek asylum in the United States and Canada. The squad — two girls and four boys who range in age from 16 to 18 — disappeared on Tuesday from the FIRST Global Challenge robotics event after it ended at DAR Constitution Hall. Their disappearance set off a panicked search at Trinity University in D.C., where they were staying in dorms.
By Thursday morning, D.C. police said two of the teens — Don Charu Ingabire, 16, and Audrey Mwamikazi, 17 — crossed into Canada and were with friends or relatives. Police later on Thursday said the other four — Richard Irakoze, 18, Kevin Sabumukiza, 17, Nice Munezero, 17, and Aristide Irambona, 18 — were not yet with relatives but were still safe.
The teens, who did not respond to Facebook messages, have left
anger, disappointment and questions about their intentions for staying in the United States and Canada. Burundi has been seized by intermittent political violence for years that has driven hundreds of thousands of people out of the country.
“I am disappointed that the students chose not to return home, even though I have a very clear understanding of the challenging circumstances they face in their nation,” said FIRST Global President Joe Sestak, a former congressman and Navy admiral, in a statement. He said the State Department and his organization, which brought in young people from 157 nations, had “stringent review protocols for the visa process.”
This year was the first for FIRST Global to host an international competition, and it featured an impressive array of competitors. But there were complications: Gambia’s team faced hurdles getting visas to come to the United States but eventually obtained them. An all-girls squad from Afghanistan was also initially denied visas, but after an international outcry, President Trump intervened so they could come to the United States.
If the Burundi teens plan to stay behind, it would be antithetical to the purpose of FIRST Global, which aims to help countries like Burundi build the ranks of skilled engineers by getting young people interested in the subject through its robotics competitions. Its founder, inventor Dean Kamen, hopes these robotics competitions can build the kinds of networks and friendships that will help countries tackle global problems — like water shortages and climate change — together.
“If we can get kids from around the world to deal with the same issues . . . we could compete on the same team,” Kamen said last Sunday, in remarks at the robotics competition’s opening ceremony. “You don’t have to have selfinflicted wounds created by arbi- trary differences and politics.”
Bindaba had never coached a robotics team before, and the students, who hailed from public and private schools around Bujumbura, had never built a robot. They adopted the motto “Ugushaka Nugushobura” — a Kirundi proverb that means “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
They began in early April, putting in three to four hours after their high school classes, working out of a classroom at a technical institute owned by Mwamikazi’s mother. FIRST Global connected the novices with Richard and Isabelle Marchand, a couple who have led robotics squads in Christiansburg, Va. The pair became virtual mentors, coaching the Burundi teens via Skype amid regular power outages.
Once the students landed in the United States, the Marchands would become their caretakers, ensuring that the teens, who were unfamiliar with American cuisine, were fed, Bindaba said. Reached at home, Isabelle Marchand declined to comment, referring questions to Sestak.
From Friday to Tuesday, the teens spent hours at DAR Constitution Hall, arriving shortly after 7 a.m. each day to work on and practice with their robot. On Sunday evening, the teens strode onto the floor of the hall for opening ceremonies, proudly waving the red, white and green Burundian flag, beaming and waving to the crowd. Afterward, Bindaba said, Ingabire’s uncle took the team out to eat. Bindaba stayed behind.
Bindaba said he saw few signs that the teens had hatched a secret bid for possible asylum in the United States or Canada. They appeared nervous, Bindaba said, but he chalked that up to the competition and their new surroundings.
“Before I thought they were acting a bit strangely,” Bindaba said, speaking from Bujumbura. “I thought maybe it was their first time to be there, to see the big buildings that we don’t have here.”
Before closing ceremonies, Bindaba saw the teens on the floor of the auditorium once more. They carried tiny flags and joined the throng of other competitors whistling and whooping, the ecstatic close to an exhilarating three-day competition. From the highest seats, Bindaba said, it was impossible to see the teens. He said he planned to decompress with the team over pizza and Coke after the competition, a reward for the hard work that earned them a 73rd-place finish out of about 160 teams. The following morning, the Marchands planned to give the group a tour of the monuments. They had an interview scheduled with Voice of America.
Police said this is when at least some of the team members slipped away, taking advantage of the noise and the chaos surrounding the competition’s end to disappear. At least one team member, Irambona, stayed behind. He helped Bindaba load the team’s robot onto a school bus that would take them back to their dorms at Trinity University. Then, Irambona carried the robot to Bindaba’s room and told the coach he was going to take a shower.
As Bindaba unloaded his bag, he noticed something peculiar: The other five team members had apparently secreted their name tags and room keys into Bindaba’s bag. For the coach, it was a deeply unsettling discovery.
“I knew something nasty was happening,” Bindaba said. “I felt it from within.”
He then rushed to Irambona’s room: He was not there, and he had left behind a mess of pizza boxes and snacks. Bindaba checked the other rooms, too: The teens had not returned.
“I cannot really describe what I felt over there, but it was really scary for me,” Bindaba said.
Bindaba also began sending panicked messages to the teens’ parents back in Burundi. But their replies made Bindaba suspicious: One child’s uncle told the coach that perhaps the children were nearby; another’s mother said to “cool down,” that perhaps the team was out having fun.
“I am not seeing the kids,” Bindaba said. “How can I cool down?”
Around 5 a.m. Wednesday, about 12 hours before the teens were set to depart from Dulles Airport, Sestak called police to file a missing persons report. The teens’ sober passport portraits went up on the D.C. police Twitter account, under the banner “MISSING PERSONS.”
Bindaba, who was unable to afford another plane ticket and had been assured the students were safe, headed home. The following morning, when Bindaba was still en route, police would announce that two of the teens had made it to Canada.
The coach said he sympathizes with their desire to stay in the United States and Canada. But he said he wishes they understood what their skills and their potential could mean to the future of their own country. Burundi suffers from “brain drain,” with many of its brightest young people leaving to get education abroad and never returning.
“For me, they were some kind of hope for the future of this project in Burundi,” Bindaba said. “It’s an opportunity for my entire country.”
“I knew something nasty was happening, I felt it from within.” Canesius Bindaba, robotics competition coach for the Burundi teens who secretly stayed in the United States and Canada