Earlier this month, a team of six Afghan girls with a passion for robotics were denied entrance into the United States. They were planning to attend the FIRST Global Challenge competition, which runs from Sunday July 16th through Tuesday July 18th in Washington DC. The event is meant to educate more high school students in robotics and to increase their overall knowledge and skills. Back then they were told their robot could attend the event, provided anyone who showed up knew how to test it. They would be allowed to converse via video chat — an infuriating situation under the circumstances.
There are at least 150 countries that send students to the event, and the challenges presented are real ones: How do you filter (and store) water? In the west, this might seem like a no-brainer, but statistically, the UN reports that more than a billion people on Earth do not have access that can be considered clean, due to pollution, drought, dumping of trash directly into the river, and so on. Inventing a device or devices that can clean the water and then repackage it in a suitable container would be an enormous achievement.
This bit is from IFLScience, who broke part of the story on the original ban.
An all-girl team from three high schools in Herat, western Afghanistan, hoped to take part and designed a robot capable of sorting balls into buckets to prove their suitability. “We want to develop and explore our minds and creativity and maybe unveil the genius inside of each one of us,” the team’s statement reads. The materials other teams used as the basis for their robots were held up by US customs, so the Afghan girls practiced building home-made motorized cars out of cardboard and sticky tape. (emphasis added)
Editor’s Note:I have no idea how to a functional anything out of cardboard and duct tape, unless you want me to use it to seal a box.
One-week visas for entry into the United States were required, and the girls had twice made the dangerous 500-mile journey to Kabul to be interviewed at the US Embassy. Twice they were rejected. This was despite their interviews having been organized by Roya Mahboob, founder of software company Citadel.
We don’t know why the State Department made its decisions; some things are never disclosed publicly and this is one of them. But we do know that these are a set of girls around 15 with a passion for science, and there’s an active insurgency in their own country that hate the idea of educating women, and tend to either kill, maim, or kidnap them. And US visas have always been difficult to get, especially since 9/11.
The State Department contacted US Citizenship and Immigration Services to reverse its decision and allow the girls into the country. This request was approved, along with allowances for the Gambian team (also banned) and teams from four other countries that had fallen afoul of US immigration services.
You can follow along at the FIRST Global Challenge site for a live stream and results of the competition.