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For Afghan girls team, a trip to Washington was about more than the robotics

A team of six Afghan girls nearly missed an international robotics competition before their visas were approved just days before traveling to the U.S. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

It was after midnight on a weeknight, yet more than three dozen people with bouquets and bright placards lined both sides of an arrival gate at Dulles International Airport.

They’d been waiting for more than an hour, ripples of anticipation running through the crowd until finally they heard Islamudin Ahmadzai, a young Afghan diplomat crisp in his dark blue suit, shout: “They are about to be coming out. Greet them, welcome them, give them the happiest faces on the planet!”

An all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan, whose entry into the United States seemed unlikely just a week earlier, came into view.

Applause broke out, red and yellow flowers were pressed into their arms, reporters swarmed with questions, and cellphone cameras were raised high.

“Welcome,” Fouzi Afshari, an Afghan woman from Virginia, told Yasimin Yasinzada, one of the girls as they hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks.

“Come, get closer, I want to shoot a selfie with you,” said a man in his 20s.

From Sunday when they arrived until Thursday when they — and their robot — left on a journey that would eventually return them to Herat, the six teenagers attracted special attention inside and outside of the international competition that had brought them to Washington.

Part of the allure was the saga of their struggle to get visas: Twice they traveled more than 500 dangerous miles from Herat in western Afghanistan to the capital, Kabul, where they were denied visas. Then a White House intervention cleared the way.

And part of the team’s appeal was people seeing Afghan girls encouraged in their education and traveling internationally.

They received a guided tour of the Capitol and were one of three teams — the others being the Americans and the Hungarians — to visit the White House at the invitation of Ivanka Trump.

But being teens, the six girls also delighted in another high point: the great Internet access at George Washington University, where they stayed.

Sitting in the living room of their dormitory suite, they stayed up late at night searching the growing collections of pictures and videos about them that were posted online and flitting through YouTube and Google.

“We are famous now,” 15-year-old Kawsar Roshan said with some surprise, adding that she didn’t have WiFi at home in Herat and that only her brother had Internet access, on a cellphone.

Herat is one of three major cities, with Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, where women enjoy more freedom than in the rest of Afghanistan. Women are visible on the streets and go in large numbers to schools, universities and outside jobs.

But Herat is still part of Afghanistan, where most women are not allowed to travel alone — and that proved to be one of the challenges in recruiting a robotics team.

FIRST Global, the organization that coordinated the robotics Olympics, late last year contacted Roya Mahboob, an Afghan technology entrepreneur who founded the New York-based Digital Citizen Fund. The nonprofit fund helps women in developing countries gain access to technology and has a focus on Herat.

Competition organizers asked the fund to help develop an Afghan team, Mahboob said.

About 150 high school students in Herat applied. After a math and science exam, 15 were selected.

But only six families would allow their daughters to attend the program, and of those girls, only one — Kawsar — understood the basic concept of a robot.

Getting families to approve the girls’ travel to Kabul for visas took some persuasion, said Fatemah Qaderyan, 14.

The next hurdle was getting the robot kit through Afghan customs.

Afghan officials detained the kit for months, fearing it was a weapon that might fall into the hands of insurgents. The girls received it two weeks before the competition, only after Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington, Hamdullah Mohib, intervened.

“Our customs didn’t know how to process it,” Mohib said.

Then came the pair of rejections before the visas were approved.

“We were so disappointed. We cried. We didn’t know what to do,” said Rodaba Noori, 16, a team member.

“I never expected to be welcomed so warmly” in the United States, she said.

One hundred sixty-three high school teams from 157 countries competed in the competition, held at DAR Constitution Hall, to encourage youths to engage in science, technology, engineering and math.

Entering in an alphabetical parade of nations, the girls from Herat were among the first in, heads covered, cheeks painted with the Afghan flag and their theme song — in Persian by the famed Afghan singer Aryana Sayed — blaring from speakers as a roar rose from the audience.

A few spots back was the team from Burundi, which by week’s end had drawn attention after the six members disappeared at the end of the competition, in what authorities suspect may be an effort to seek asylum. Two members of the Burundian team are known to have crossed into Canada.

“We couldn’t imagine receiving this much applause,” Fatemah said.

“It was a moment of happiness and pride,” 15-year-old Lida Azizi said after the opening.

During the three days of the contest, other teams and visitors followed the Afghan competitors from their station at a corner of the hall to the practice and competition floor to greet them, and of course, take pictures.

Yaw Okraku-Yirenkyi, the Ghanaian team’s mentor, made four attempts with no luck Sunday and succeeded Monday on his eighth run at getting a selfie with the Afghan team.

Competitors from Germany and Mexico said that Afghanistan’s team made the headlines in both countries.

“They deserved the attention,” said Kira Johanna Fischer, 16, of the German team. But there was a little pang of regret at seeing a foreign team receiving more coverage in German news media than the German team. “You feel a bit sad,” she said.

By the close of the events Tuesday, Team Afghanistan had finished 114th but with medals for “courageous achievement,” which the young women wore over their traditional dresses — in the red, green and black of Afghanistan’s flag — to a reception with the Afghan ambassador, Mohib.

“We always talk about them as numbers,” Mohib said, referring to women and progress in Afghanistan. “These girls here represent all of our achievements.”

That was a theme sounded, too, on Capitol Hill as the team visited after the competition.

In the House hallways, members and staffers waved and shook hands. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) greeted the girls and tweeted about it.

At a reception held for the team at the Capitol, about 30 members of Congress from both parties showed up to greet the team members. Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-Calif.) gushed, “You light up our lives.”

“I was shocked, and couldn’t believe I was walking in the Capitol building,” Rodaba said after the tour.

When Davis recounted a trip she had made to Herat, Kawsar jumped in to ask, “Are you coming to my house” next time?

Five of the girls said they want to continue studying science and technology when they return home. And they have been invited to take part in science competitions in the Netherlands, Canada and Germany.

Their robot will be hitting the road, too, back home.

It will be displayed in Herat as part of an exhibition the Digital Citizen Fund plans to hold in December to encourage more Afghan women to enter the technology field.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said 163 high school students from 157 countries competed in the competition. The story has been corrected to reflect that 163 high school teams from 157 countries competed in the competition.

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