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Afghan robotics team arrives safely in Doha: ‘The girls rescued themselves’

The "Afghan Dreamers," an all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan, have escaped the country amid the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Several members of an Afghan girls robotics team have safely evacuated to Qatar this week after repeated flight cancellations amid the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country.

At least a dozen of the girls from the team have fled the nation, the majority arriving in the capital city of Doha on Tuesday, according to Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown, an adviser with the New York-based Digital Citizen Fund, the team’s parent organization. Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed their arrival in a statement.

Afghanistan’s robotics team broke barriers. Now it’s desperate to escape the Taliban.

The original six girls on the team became known as the “Afghan Dreamers” when they captured the world’s attention in 2017, arriving in Washington for an international robotics competition after facing long odds to gain entry to the United States. They endured a 500-mile journey from their homes in Harat to an embassy in Kabul where they were twice denied visas and later had their robot kit confiscated by the Afghan government in the months before the competition.

Due to security reasons, advocates for the girls could not immediately confirm specific details about the evacuation, including how many girls fled, their ages and if they were accompanied by family.

It’s unclear where the girls, who are high-schoolers between the ages of 13 and 18, will reside now that they have left. Brown said the immediate priority is raising scholarship money so that they can continue their education.

“They would continue to build the future of their country; they are the future,” Brown told The Washington Post on Friday. “It’s all about the future.”

Though the girls from the 2017 team are now college age, the younger girls currently on the team were all born after the Taliban last had control of Afghanistan in 2001. They have only experienced the subsequent years of progress and opportunity for Afghan women and girls, Brown said.

“If you ever talk to them, they have this infectious amount of hope. They don’t talk about the Taliban, or war — they talk about what they want to do, their dreams,” Brown said. “They want to go to Mars, go to Harvard, become engineers, make a mining robot, make video games.”

The girls would have faced an uncertain future under Taliban control. The group, which follows an extreme interpretation of Islam, barred girls from getting an education when it last controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

The Taliban now says it will allow more freedoms for women, though many Afghans are skeptical; on Friday, women working for Afghan state television reported that Taliban fighters barred them from appearing on camera.

The treacherous journey into Kabul airport to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan

About two months ago, when Brown spoke to several team members, some mentioned concerns over security as the Taliban advanced through smaller cities and rural villages in Afghanistan, she said. The situation became increasingly dire after Taliban fighters overtook the capital city Sunday, later posing in the palace after then-President Ashraf Ghani fled.

The Taliban’s takeover prompted desperate attempts by Afghans and foreigners alike to flee the country through Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul.

Plans to evacuate the robotics team accelerated Aug. 12 when Roya Mahboob, an Afghan technology entrepreneur who founded the DCF and serves as the team’s mentor, requested the help of the Qatari government, Brown said. Members of Qatar’s government kept in touch with the team after a visit to Doha in 2019.

Brown rejected the narrative that the girls were “rescued” by American outsiders (the State Department did not immediately respond to requests confirming any involvement of U.S. officials), saying it was Mahboob and the Qatari government who navigated the difficult logistics, which included expediting the visa process and sending a plane to evacuate the girls after most outbound flights from the Kabul airport were canceled.

Most of all, she credited the team.

“If it wasn’t for their hard work and dedication to their education, the world wouldn’t know them and they’d still be trapped,” Brown said. “The girls rescued themselves. It was their bravery that got them out.”

Read more:

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