Six teenage Afghan inventors have been rejected for a one-week travel visa to escort their robot to the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition happening in Washington, DC, in mid-July, reports Forbes Magazine.
To interview for their visas, the all-girl team representing Afghanistan had to make 500-mile cross-country trek from Herat to the American embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Kabul was the site of several recent suicide attacks and one deadly truck bomb in early June that killed at least 90 people.
Despite the recent violence, the teenagers braved the trip to the country’s capital not once, but twice, hoping a second round of interviews might help secure their seven-day visas after the team was rejected on its first try. This week they were rejected a second time—because of Trump’s travel ban.
Roya Mahboob, who founded Citadel software company in Afghanistan and was the country’s first female tech CEO, brought the group of girls together for the project.
“It’s a very important message for our people,” Mahboob says. “Robotics is very, very new in Afghanistan.” She says when the girls were informed of their visa rejections, they “cried all day.”
Back home in Herat, Team Afghanistan is racing against the clock, putting the final touches on their ball-sorting robot that will travel to the US to compete against 163 other machines from around the globe. Their raw materials were held up in customs for months this spring, amid fears over ISIS’ use of robots on the battlefield. Just three weeks ago, those supplies cleared customs, and the team finally started working on their official FIRST robot, with remote programming help from a few robotics grad students at Carnegie Mellon.
FIRST Global President Joe Sestak—a former congressman—says he’s disappointed that the “extraordinarily brave young women” from Afghanistan will not be given the opportunity to join the other students in DC this summer. He said the girls will be able to join the competition from their home in Herat, video conferencing in briefly to see their machine.
Other teams from Iraq, Iran, and Sudan were all able to secure their travel visas for the competition—and roughly 95% of FIRST global teams will be able to attend. Only team Afghanistan and team Gambia have been denied visas so far.
“We aim to…become some of the young leaders of science and technology,” says a bio post for Team Afghanistan on First Global’s website from January 2017. “We want to develop and explore our minds and creativity and maybe unveil the genius inside of each one of us.”
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