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U.S. denies visas for Afghanistan’s all-girl robotics team

The Afghanistan FIRST Global team. (Courtesy of First Global)

It's not easy to get robotics equipment through customs in Afghanistan, but that didn't deter this plucky bunch.

For months, a team of six teenage girls has been scrambling to build a ball-sorting robot that will compete in an international competition. Other teams received their raw materials in March. But the box sent from America had been held up for months amid concerns about terrorism. So the young engineers improvised, building motorized machines from household materials.

They didn't have time to waste if they were going to compete in the FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition to be held in Washington, D.C., this month. Young teams from around the world face off against each other, in an effort to engage people in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Travel ban takes effect as State Department defines ‘close family’

To participate, the girls from the city of Herat in western Afghanistan needed permission to travel to the United States. So, after they persuaded their parents to let them go, they made the 500-mile journey to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to apply for their visas. They did this twice, even though that location was targeted by a deadly truck bomb.

Things seemed to be lining up. But then the team got some bad news: Their visa applications had been denied.

Roya Mahboob, who founded Citadel software company in Afghanistan and was the country's first female technology chief executive, is one of the team's sponsors. When the girls heard the news, she said, “they were crying all the day.”

“The first time [they were rejected] it was very difficult talking with the students,” Mahboob told Mashable. “They're young and they were very upset.”

Fourteen-year-old Fatemah told Forbes, “We want to show the world we can do it; we just need a chance.”

On their competition page, the girls wrote:

We want to make a difference, and most breakthroughs in science, technology, and other industries normally start with the dream of a child to do something great. We want to be that child and pursue our dreams to make a difference in peoples' lives.

The State Department does not comment on specific visa denials. According to recent State Department records, it's particularly hard  to get a business travel visa from Afghanistan. Just 112 were granted in May 2017; 780 visas were issued to visitors from Iraq and 4,067 from Pakistan.

The Afghan girls are not alone. On Tuesday, the leader of a robotics team from the West African nation of Gambia announced that they too had been denied visas to enter the United States. Mucktarr M.Y. Darboe, a Higher Education ministry director, told the Associated Press that no reason was given for the visa denials in April. Gambia is a largely Muslim nation. AP could not immediately reach anyone at the U.S. Embassy in Banjul for comment.

FIRST Global president and former congressman Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) was disappointed by the news and frustrated that the “extraordinarily brave young women” won't be able to travel to the United States and instead will have to watch their robot compete via Skype. Teams from Iraq, Iran and Sudan will be at the competition.

Mahboob is frustrated, but she still thinks the teenagers can serve as an inspiration for others. “In Afghanistan, as you know it’s a very man-dominated industry,” Mahboob said, according to Newsweek. “The girls, they’re showing at a young age that they can build something.”