Afghan girls’ robotics team devastated after US visa denied for competition

3 Jul 2017

Members of the Afghan team who are unable to travel to the First Global Challenge due to denied visas. Image: First Global

A team of young Afghan girls has been denied access to the US for a major robotics competition because of its new visa law.

Despite scrambling to build their robots under the most extreme of circumstances, six Afghan girls are facing the reality that the international competition they’re participating in won’t be able to host them.

The teenagers had entered the First Global Challenge with the aim of representing their country against some of the world’s leading young engineers.

According to Forbes, the team was expecting to travel to Washington, DC later this month for the event, having journeyed a distance of 800km from Herat to Kabul to obtain their one-week visa, on two occasions, for two rounds of interviews.

However, despite Afghanistan not being included in US president Donald Trump’s revised six-country immigration ban, they will not be able to travel.

Instead, the team is hoping to quickly build its robot and send it to the competition without them.

What makes this more incredible is the challenges that had already faced the team, which allowed them to build the ball-sorting robot in the first place.

‘We just need a chance’

Due to Afghanistan’s continued instability, the girls had to wait months for their robotic parts to be allowed through customs over fears the materials would be used by ISIS.

As a result, they resorted to building their own parts while they waited, only to be told – with three weeks to go before the competition deadline – that the goods were given the all-clear by customs.

They are now quickly putting the final touches on the robot, including programming its sensors and making sure it is all wired correctly.

The project is led by Afghanistan’s first woman tech CEO, Roya Mahboob, founder of software company Citadel, who described the girls’ efforts as being “a very important message for our people”, as “robotics is very, very new in Afghanistan”.

She added that after they were told the news, the girls were “crying all day”.

One of those involved in the project, 14-year-old Fatemah, said that despite the setback, she enjoyed building the robot.

“We want to show the world we can do it, we just need a chance,” she said.

‘Extraordinarily brave young women’

A total of 163 machines are expected to take part in the First Global Challenge, the inaugural robotics event for First Global. The Afghanistan entry is just one of two teams denied visas, the other being from Gambia.

Commenting on their plight, First Global president Joe Sestak said he was very disappointed in the decision taken by the US State Department, calling the team “extraordinarily brave young women”.

While the US government does not comment on individual applications, records show it is notoriously difficult for people to get B1/B2 business travel visas from Afghanistan, with just 32 issued in April of this year.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic