State Department Denies Visas For All Girls Robotics Team From Afghanistan
In two weeks student robotics/STEM teams from over 100 countries will converge on Washington DC for the first annual FIRST Global Challenge. The global challenge is pitting teams from around the world against each other with an overall goal of collaboration to find solutions through robotics and STEM/STEAM ideas to solve a world problem. That problem, global access to water.
Just off the heals of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) 2017 conference, one of the biggest underlying themes was diversity and access to education, specifically STEM/STEAM initiatives. While access to internet and computers is still a huge problem, big strides have been made in that regard. Now we are faced with the fact that there is a big divide in STEM/STEAM careers, computer engineering jobs, and software development. This issue is so prominent that Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code was the closing keynote speaker for the ISTE 2017 conference. That left just about every attendee in the room, yearning for more, yearning to figure out how as a people, we can provide better access to these important skills and tools to underserved communities, people of all ethnicities and girls.
All girl robotics teams are already faced with an uphill battle. They have the smarts, skills and desire to compete and win. But they’re often met with obstacles. Sometimes it’s hard for them to find a sponsor. Other times it’s hard for them to be taken seriously. The Free Form hit show, The Fosters, chronicled some of the discrimination all girls robotics teams face in their episode “Girl Code”.
There’s not a team on earth, boys or girls, that have put forth the effort and overcome so much to compete in a robotics challenge as an all girl team from Afghanistan has in recent days.
The team, selected to compete in the FIRST Global challenge, has been met with adversity every step of the way. Some of the strongest US teams would have balked at what this team had faced, even in the beginning. For starters, the Washington Post reports that FIRST Global delivered the robotics kits in early March 2017. When those kits arrived in Afghanistan for the team to start working, they were held up in customs for over a month in fear that these girls were building terrorist tools. In the interim, while waiting for the kits to clear customs, the girls were not set back, they continued to work using household items to replicate the parts they would eventually get.
The next hurdle was applying for their Visas to enter the United States. For this, it required a 500 mile journey for all of the students and their parents, to the US Embassy in Kabul. They made this trip not once but twice. Add to that the fact that this U.S. Embassy was targeted by a deadly truck bomb.
Let that sink in for just a second, this all girl robotics team from Afghanistan was so eager to compete that they literally risked their lives to do so.
After risking their lives twice to get their U.S. Visas to just come over and compete, they were denied. Roya Mahboob an Afghan woman who founded Citadel Software was one of the team’s major sponsors. She said when the girls received the news that their visas were denied “they were crying all the day.”
“The first time [they were rejected] it was very difficult talking with the students,” Mahboob told Mashable. “They’re young and they were very upset.”
The girls, dubbed “Team Afghanistan” posted this on their competition page:
“We are the first robotic team with The Digital Citizen Fund (DCF) based in Herat, Afghanistan. DCF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to empower youth and young women in developing countries to gain access to technology and obtain the necessary skills to succeed in today’s expanding global market. We are proud to announce that we have been selected to represent Afghanistan as the FIRST Global team in the competition. Our team members are from Towhid, Malakai Jalalai and Hoze Karbas High Schools. As a dedicated group of students, mentors, and volunteers, we aim to transform the culture of our community through the STEAM program and become some of the young leaders of science and technology. We want to develop and explore our minds and creativity and maybe unveil the genius inside of each one of us. This opportunity would allow us to invent, design, and create things that could possibly allow our community, our lives, and us. We want to make a difference and most breakthroughs in science, technology, and other industries normally start with the dream of a child to do something great. We want to be that child and pursue our dreams to make a difference in people’s lives.”
The girls will remain in Afghanistan for the competition and be able to participate by watching others control their robot via Skype. Teams from Sudhan, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt will be in Washington DC for the competition that runs July 16-18th at Constitution Hall. Admission for spectators is free.
No matter where you stand on terrorism, as educators or those supporting educators and global students, it’s hard not to feel for this team that has tried so hard to compete to help improve global access to water.