The United States denied travel visas for six teenage girls from Afghanistan looking to attend an international robotics competition in Washington, D.C this month.
The all-girl team from Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, applied for a one-week travel visa to attend the FIRST Global Challenge in mid-July. To interview for their visas, they had to travel about 500 miles to the U.S. embassy in Kabul. They made that trek a second time after their first application was rejected, but they were rejected yet again.
Roya Mahboob, who founded the Citadel software company in Afghanistan and organized the team of girls, told Forbes that when the team heard their visa applications were rejected again, they cried all day.
“It’s a very important message for our people,” she said. “Robotics is very, very new in Afghanistan.”
The girls are still working on their ball-sorting robot and will send it to the competition, which they will watch over Skype.
Fatemah, a 14-year-old team member, told Forbes that she likes working with robots and creating something new. “We want to show the world we can do it, we just need a chance,” she said, speaking through a Persian translator.
FIRST Global President and former Congressman Joe Sestak (D-PA) told Forbes he’s saddened that the “extraordinarily brave young women” won’t be able to attend.
Mahboob is organizing a team of Afghani American girls to operate the robot at the competition in the team’s stead.
It’s not clear why the team of girls were unable to obtain a one-week travel visa. The organization stressed that they worked very closely with the State Department in seeking to get visas for teams from all countries attending the competition, and said it was a fair process.
As Forbes first reported, it’s hard for Afghan nationals to obtain visas to the United States. State Department records reveal that in April 2017, only 32 Afghan nationals received the B1/B2 business travel visas that the girls also applied for. For comparison, 1,492 nationals of neighboring Pakistan received that visa in the same month.
The team has already faced a series of other hurdles, including obtaining the parts needed for their robot to begin with. The team had to wait for months for customs to clear the raw materials, due to concerns over the Islamic State’s use of robots, and they received their equipment just three weeks ago. Graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania have been assisting them in their project.
They are set to compete against 163 other teams July 16. Teams from other countries received visas, including teams from Iran, Iraq, and Sudan — all of whom are targeted in the latest version of Trump’s Muslim ban. The only other team whose visas were rejected thus far was Gambia, according to FIRST Global. The organization estimates that 95 percent of the teams competing have already received their visas, and they’re hoping to increase that number to 98 percent by next week. This is the first year the competition is international.
U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan has been a mess under the Trump administration, and over 250 people have been killed in mass attacks in the country since April. That month, the United States dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb, nicknamed the “Mother of All Bombs,” in Nangarhar, in the east of the country. Also, the United States has been bombing Afghanistan for the last 16 years, or in other words, for the girls’ entire lives.
UPDATE: Senior administration officials told Politico that the United States has decided to allow the Afghan girls into the country after President Trump personally intervened.