Six Afghan teenage girls are to compete in person in a global robotics competition in Washington on Sunday after the US .
Robot allowed into US for competition, but no visa for Afghan girls who made it
The initial rejection of the team’s visa sparked international outcry and the girls became national celebrities in , where many are perplexed about the repercussions of new US immigration rules and feel abandoned by their American allies.
A US state department official confirmed to the Guardian that there were new developments under way in the girls’ case. The team said they had been asked to go to the embassy in Kabul on Thursday.
“We are so happy I can’t find words for it,” Rodaba Noori, 15, said from the runway as the girls were about to board a plane from their home city, Herat, to the Afghan capital.
“We will stay in the United States for about seven days. We will compare the cultures between the US and Afghanistan, and go sightseeing and talk to the people,” she said, in English.
In an interview before the reversal, the girls had expressed their shock at the rejection. “We thought the US and Afghanistan had friendly relations. We thought the US’s fight for women’s rights and equality would get us visas,” Noori said.
Yet since it took international outrage to sway the US visa decision, the U-turn will not assuage confusion in Afghanistan over Washington’s future commitments. Human Rights Watch called the visa denial “all too emblematic of the hollowness of US efforts to empower girls in Afghanistan”.
Successive American governments have heralded women’s rights as a key reason for US forces’ continued stay in Afghanistan, and a cornerstone of US aid to the country is the five-year programme, which states: “Everyone who cares about the future of Afghanistan supports women’s empowerment as the foundation for economic growth, peace and security.”
Only teams from Afghanistan and the Gambia were denied visas for the competition, neither of which is among the six Muslim-majority countries subjected to Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Afghans often struggle to get US visas. In May, only 112 Afghan applicants received the B1/B2 visa to the US that the girls applied for. In the same period the US granted the same visa to 1,091 applicants from Iran and 274 from Sudan, which are now subject to Trump’s travel ban after the US supreme court partially reinstated it.
When told that a team from Iran had received visas, the girls could not contain their laughter. “Why is it only Afghans who can’t go? It’s discrimination. It really makes me angry,” said Lida Azizi, 16.
The US embassy in Kabul did not disclose why it rejected the robotics competition team. However, given the process, the most likely cause was a suspicion that the girls intended to migrate.
Asked whether they would return to Afghanistan after their US trip, the girls – aged 14 to 16 – seemed baffled. “Of course we will. We have our studies, our families, our classmates, our entire lives here,” said Azizi. “We don’t have any relatives in the US. We only want to go for the competition.”
If they make it on time, the girls will watch their ball-sorting robot compete against teams from 156 other countries in the .
From the beginning, the Afghan girls were at a disadvantage. In the male-dominated field of technology, the team’s sponsor wanted an all-female team to represent Afghanistan. But only six of the top 15 girls who emerged got permission from their families to compete.
The next hurdle was Afghan customs which, apparently confused by the package sent by the organisers, held the equipment for three and a half months, leaving the girls with only two weeks to build the robot. “The organisers said, ‘you can’t do this’,” said Alireza Mehraban, the team’s mentor.
To finish on time, the girls worked over the fasting month of Ramadan. “We were tired but we came here, even during Eid,” said Kawsar Roshan. She said the team wanted to show the world how far Afghan girls had come during a western intervention that began before most of them were born.
“Since I was a child, I wanted to show that girls can do anything, also outside the home,” Kawsar said.
To apply for visas, the team twice travelled to Kabul, despite a recent spike in violence in the capital.
Two days before their second embassy appointment, a truck bomb killed 150 people in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter. The day they arrived, anti-government protests had the city in lockdown. The girls had to walk to the US embassy, where they received their rejection.
“They cried for six hours,” said Mehraban, the mentor. Fatemah Qaderyan said she cried so much she couldn’t leave her relatives’ house in Kabul and missed her return flight.
For Roya Mahboob, the chief executive of the Digital Citizen Fund, which sponsors the team, allowing the girls to compete sends an important signal. “The feeling to not be ignored or be equal as boys if the opportunity is available to you is important,” she said.