Using remote controllers, the six girls from guided their robot, designed to sort blue and orange balls, down a patch of turf inside the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington DC. Their cheeks were painted with small Afghan flags, and they wore head scarves in matching black, red and green, as they competed against robotics teams from more than 150 countries.
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When the three-day student contest ended on Tuesday, the judges awarded the team a silver medal for “courageous achievement”, praising the teenagers for exhibiting a “can-do” attitude despite multiple setbacks.
“It was the most exciting moment of my life,” said Lida Azizi, 15, one of the six team members, in an interview through a translator. “It never came to my mind that one day I would compete in a competition like this.”
For the team, participating in the robotics contest was itself a victory.
Twice rejected for US visas as they sought to participate in the First Global robotics competition, the girls faced a plight that attracted international attention and resulted in an extraordinary intervention from Donald Trump to grant them admission to the US.
The Afghans were not the only team to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. But it was their story that captured the attention of their competitors, the judges and supporters from around the world.
In order to apply for US visas, they had to travel twice from their hometown, in western Afghanistan, through territory under Taliban control, to the US embassy in Kabul.
Their case began attracting global attention – and sparked a heated debate over the president’s immigration policies – when their visa applications were rejected. Though Afghanistan is not among the countries included in Trump’s travel ban, critics of the president said the case was demonstrative of the administration’s attempt to restrict Muslims from entering the US.
After news of the girls’ case reached the White House, Trump instructed officials at the state department and the Department of Homeland Security to grant the team admission.
Dina Powell, the deputy adviser for strategy, said in a statement after the intervention that the administration “could not be prouder of this delegation of young women” and called them the “future leaders of Afghanistan”.
The attention surprised Azizi, who said her hands occasionally trembled when she was asked a question in English.
“I hope we have made Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan proud,” Azizi said.
Of that there was no question. The Afghan ambassador, Hamdullah Mohib, said greeting the robotics team at Dulles International Airport was the “proudest moment of my career”. He described the girls as symbols of a new Afghanistan emerging from the shadow of America’s longest war.
“These girls are 16 years old. The youngest is 14. She was born after the US engagement in Afghanistan, and the others around the time when the US started to engage with the country. People give the statistics … 16 years ago we didn’t have schools for girls. And today there are,” Mohib said in an interview.
“What does it mean? These girls are actually representative of what progress has been made. They have gone through that process every year, through education. They started with their primary school and went up and today are competing in an international competition with the robots that they built.”
Somayah Faruqi, 14, another member of the Afghan robotics team, said her favorite memory from the contest was the opportunity to work with teams from other countries and to observe the different techniques her competitors used to assemble their robots.
“I learned a lot from them,” she said. “It was a very unique experience.”
Faruqi, among the youngest students to compete, said her first impression of the US was different from what she expected, though the translator noted that the girl’s opinion had largely been shaped by movies set in in New York City.
“I like that American people always give a smile,” Faruqi said. “Even though I don’t know the language, I always receive a smile.”
The six Afghan teens were chosen from an initial pool of 150 students, Mehraban said. Because of a shipment delay, the teens had just two weeks to build their robot compared with the nearly four months some of the other teams had.
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Azizi and Faruqi said they planned to continue studying science and technology, and hoped to someday return to the competition as mentors for a future team of enterprising young Afghans.
During the competition, the girls Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser. They received well wishes from politicians and even drew an at-capacity crowd to a hastily arranged reception at the Afghan embassy, which, the ambassador noted, is no easy feat in Washington, where social calendars typically fill well in advance.
Alireza Mehraban, a software engineer from Herat who is the team’s mentor, said he believed the competition would “change what is possible” for Azizi, Faruqi, their teammates and potentially a generation of young Afghan women interested in science and technology.
“They say no, girls in Afghanistan cannot do this ... but they can,” Mehraban said.