Bu­rundi ro­bot­ics team’s van­ish­ing sparked panic

Coach Cane­sius Bind­aba de­scribes a fran­tic search af­ter teens slipped away

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MO­RIAH BALIN­GIT

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

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