But a lawyer for the team’s parent organization, the Digital Citizen Fund, said that Reneau has overstated her role and has, in fact, put the girls and their families at risk because her repeated claims are undermining ongoing rescue efforts in the country.
“Continuingly recycling old pictures with the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, many of whom are minors, as validation that you had anything to do with their immensely stressful and dangerous escape not only impacts the safety of the girls but it also significantly affects the safety of the members of the team who still remain in Afghanistan,” wrote Kim Motley, a lawyer for the group and a Digital Citizen Fund board member, in a letter sent to Reneau just after midnight Wednesday. “It is highly unfortunate that you would use such a tragically horrible situation … for what appears to be your own personal gain.”
A spokesman for the Qatari Foreign Ministry, which helped evacuate many Afghans, including the robotics team members, also accused Reneau of taking credit for a rescue she had little to do with — and lambasted the U.S. media for making her a “White savior.”
Reneau denied that she has done anything but tell the truth. “‘I’m above board, and if you don’t tell the truth, then you have nothing else to show for it,” she told The Washington Post in a phone interview Wednesday. She said she was perplexed but undeterred by the “blowback” against her efforts.
“The attention I’ve gotten has allowed me to help other Afghan women, so I don’t see any reason for me to stop,” she said.
The dispute underscores how difficult it is to stop a media narrative once it begins to spread, especially in a fast-moving and chaotic story such as the one unfolding in Afghanistan, where news outlets are hungry for developments and feel-good stories.
How Reneau became designated as a supposed hero of this particular evacuation started on Aug. 19, just days after the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, when Today.com published a story dramatically titled, “Oklahoma mom of 11 helps rescue 10 girls on Afghanistan’s robotics team.”
The story said that Reneau — an entrepreneur who graduated from Harvard’s extension school in 2016 and serves on the board of the Mars Explore foundation — had met some of the girls at a 2019 space exploration conference in D.C. and then kept in touch with them.
Unable to sleep as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, Reneau said, she resolved to get the girls out even if it meant flying across the world. “I decided that Monday, I’m just going to fly to Qatar — like a leap of faith — and see what I can do,” she told Today.
In the end, Reneau didn’t get on the plane. She told Today that, instead, she contacted an old roommate who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Qatar and the two worked to secure paperwork for the girls’ exit from Afghanistan.
The Today story was substantially rewritten, with a note added at the bottom, after it was published — taking the focus off Reneau and quoting a board member of the robotics team’s parent organization: “Ultimately the girls ‘rescued’ themselves.” But the story of a heroic Oklahoma mother quickly spread across other media.
CNN’s Brianna Keilar interviewed Reneau, telling her, “This really is an extraordinary story that I think a lot of Americans who are feeling helpless and want to do something, they need to hear this.” So did an NBC affiliate in Oklahoma. “I just had an overwhelming, dreadful feeling that they were in a lot of danger,” Reneau told the Oklahoma station.
The New York Post inaccurately wrote that Reneau really had flown to Qatar. So did the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which suggested that President Biden put “this extraordinary woman” in charge of the Afghanistan evacuation — before correcting the editorial to note that Reneau had not flown anywhere. (Reneau told The Washington Post that she never represented that she went to Qatar.)
The story was also picked up by the Daily Mail, Business Insider and many local TV affiliates and overseas outlets, many of which initially made little mention of the crucial role of non-Americans in the girls’ rescue.
Qatar coordinated the evacuation directly with representatives of the Digital Citizen Fund, the robotics team’s parent organization, said Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Ibrahim AlHashmi.
Roya Mahboob, an Afghan business executive and founder of the Digital Citizen Fund, contacted a Qatari diplomat about the girls on Aug. 13. Days later, the girls met with that government’s ambassador to Afghanistan “in a secure location,” AlHashmi said. “He escorted them safely to the airport, where they were evacuated to Doha in a plane arranged by Qatar’s armed forces.”
He said the Qatari government never worked with Reneau or heard from the U.S. Embassy about her. (A spokesperson for the State Department said the agency could not confirm details of individual cases, citing privacy concerns.)
“She took the agency from the girls and she claimed credit,” AlHashmi said. “The media let her be a White savior, claiming the girls were saved by her. They came to global attention because of their work … so it should be about them and their courage and the work they have done. This should be the story that the media is focusing on, not a woman who is thousands of miles away who is claiming credit.”
The robotics team has been internationally famous for years, and the fate of the members under the returning Taliban has been tracked by many outlets, including the The Washington Post, NBC News and the New York Times — which broke the news of the girls’ exit from Afghanistan in an Aug. 19 story that made no mention of Reneau.
But regardless of the framing, the media attention on their escape has brought on new dangers and underscored the complications of getting vulnerable people out of Afghanistan.
Afghans often have large families, and the Taliban targets relatives left behind, said Arash Azizzada, an Afghan community organizer in Los Angeles who has been involved with evacuation efforts.
“Family members of the robotics team have been in touch with me, asking me for assistance with evacuating their extended family because the media coverage has now put them in danger and they are now fearing retribution by the Taliban,” Azizzada said.
Reneau — who was previously on the Today Show in 2011 (“Mom of 11 heads off to Harvard”) — got on Today.com’s radar when one her Facebook posts about the robotics teams was forwarded to a writer there.
Mahboob then confirmed to Today.com that members of the team had met Reneau in the past and that the girls made it out of Afghanistan. But she said she never confirmed that Reneau played a central role in the evacuation.
“I am talking with so many people who say they want to support my program,” Mahboob said through tears, “but no one else … then takes credit and makes it a story about themselves.”
Reneau said she never sought the limelight. “I got into this whole deal to rescue people. That was my goal. I didn’t want it to turn into a media circus,” Reneau said. “It’s not about me being superwoman; it’s about these girls.”
Not all of the Afghan robotics team members are out of the country. And in subsequent media appearances, Reneau has said she is still working to get more vulnerable women out, while also noting the work of the Qatari government and others. A Facebook fundraiser entitled Afghan Girls Rescue Fund has raised more than $50,000 with money going to Reneau’s nonprofit organization. Reneau said that all of the funds raised will go to the girls who have left the country but isn’t sure how to get them the money yet, given the dispute with their parent organization.
She said has been inundated with requests from Afghan women since her media tour and is working with a former NASA general counsel and a Yale Law School team, and has “an extraction team on the ground” in Afghanistan. “I’m not going to leave one behind,” she told conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck on Tuesday. “The one thing I’m missing is planes.”
Beck, who has an organization working on evacuating Christians and other religious minorities from the country, said he could provide the planes if she gets evacuees to the tarmac.
“We’re Americans, and we figure it out, don’t we, Glenn?” Reneau responded.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.