An all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan have built a robot to compete in an international STEM competition in Washington, but have been denied visas to the United States.
However their robot is allowed into the country, and the girls will now have to watch it compete via a Skype link.
The inaugural robotics challenge for high-school-age children, run by not-for-profit organisation First Global, was conceived to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to youth worldwide.
The six teenage girls from Herat applied for a one-week travel visa, and journeyed twice to the American embassy in the capital of Kabul for interviews.
Now their ball-sorting robot will be sent to the US without them in time for the competition, starting Sunday 17 July, and will be operated by a stand-in team while its inventors watch via video link.
“We still don’t know the reason why we were not granted visas, because other countries participating in the competition have been given visas,” Fatemah Qaderyan, 14, told The Guardian. “We did our best and we hope that our robot could get a position along other robots from other countries.”
First Global President, Joe Sestak, issued a lengthy statement on the company’s Facebook page in which he said he was “saddened” but revealed that the international venture had government support, with even teams from countries on the ‘banned’ list (thanks to Trump’s executive order) being granted visas.
Afghanistan is not on the list, which features six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen) whose citizens are currently temporarily banned from visiting America.
Sestak goes on to say that he believes the “wonderful” Afghanistan team had been given a “very fair opportunity” and he does not believe there was any “prejudice or politics” influencing the decision.
“No one did more to ensure success for First Global than the US Government’s State Department. Thus far, 156 teams have received approval to participate in First Global, and only six nations still have visa interviews remaining to be done. This is extraordinary […]
“Beginning last December the State Department […] immediately answered every question you raised with us and they requested second interviews for several nations that did not gain approval the first time – including Afghanistan.
“All but one of those countries subsequently received approval. Iran, Sudan and Team Hope (Syrian refugees) all will now participate in First Global even though they are on the Executive Order on travel recently reinstituted in the United States.”
He adds: “The support of the US State Department (including its embassies) has been simply nothing short of amazing. I was deeply saddened about the Afghan team not getting visas […] and yet I know that the team was given a fair opportunity, a very fair opportunity, by the US State Department.
“While not privy to the exact reasons undergirding the decision, I know first-hand that the war environment is both turbulent and dynamic in Afghanistan […] I bring this up because although I am saddened by what occurred, I also want all of you to know that there was no prejudice or politics made in the decision regarding that brave team of Afghanistan’s youth. The proof of that is how successful First Global has been in the visa process when the historic refusal rate in so many of your nations was just as high as Afghanistan’s – and even higher.”
He goes on to say that the team would now be represented by Afghan students already in the US, who would be taught how to operate their robot, and would Skype in to watch the contest. The organisation will be doing the same for the Gambian team, who would be represented by Gambian-American students after they were also denied travel visas.
Main image: First Global Media via YouTube