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Denied US visas, all-girl Afghan robotics students watch creation compete via Skype

Members of the Afghan robotics girls' team work on their robots in Herat province, Afghanistan, on July 4, 2017. Source: Reuters/Mohammad Shoib

Two Afghan girls, who were refused visas to the United States for a robot-building competition, said on Tuesday they were perplexed by the decision, as the contest’s organisers said teams from Iran and Sudan, as well as a de facto Syrian team had gained visas.

The unusual story of the Afghan all-girl team of robotics students emerged as the US grapples with the legality of President Donald Trump’s order to temporarily ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries.

Afghanistan is not on the list and Team Afghanistan’s robot, unlike its creators, has been allowed entry to the US. Asked by Reuters on Tuesday why the girls were banned, a US State Department spokesman cited regulations prohibiting the agency from discussing individual visa cases.

So the six team members will watch the ball-sorting machine compete in Washington DC via video link during the July 16-18 event from their hometown of Herat, in western Afghanistan, according to the FIRST Global contest organisers.

“We still don’t know the reason why we were not granted visas, because other countries participating in the competition have been given visas,” said 14-year-old Fatemah Qaderyan, part of the team that made two journeys to the US Embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul to apply for their papers.

“No one knows about the future but … we did our best and we hope our robot could get a position along robots from other countries,” Fatemah said.

Members of Afghan robotics girls team. Source: Reuters/Mohammad Shoib

Most of the female team members were either infants or not yet born at the time of the US-backed military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime – whose ultra-hardline interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) banned girls from school, women from working outside the home and all females from leaving home without a male relative.

More than 15 years later, around 10,000 US and allied international troops remain in Afghanistan to support an elected government in Kabul that constitutionally guarantees women’s rights, but is increasingly losing ground to a Taliban insurgency that now controls or contests some 40 percent of the territory.

Fatemah’s teammate from Herat, Lida Azizi, 17, was less forgiving of the US visa decision.

“All of the countries can participate in the competitions, but we can’t. So it’s a clear insult for the people of Afghanistan.” – Lida Azizi

FIRST Global president Joe Sestak said in a post on the organisation’s Facebook page he was “saddened” by the US decision, but the Afghan team would be able to connect with the competition via a live Skype video link.

“That is how we must now honour our fellow teammates, those brave girls from Afghanistan,” he said.

He said the teams of 156 countries – including from Iran and Sudan, which are on Trump’s list of countries whose citizens are banned from entry – had received their visas.

“The support of the US State Department (including its embassies) has been simply nothing short of amazing,” Sestak said in the post, adding one other team, from Gambia, had been also denied visas.

Also approved for visas was “Team Hope,” a group of Syrian refugees, he said.

Syria is among the Muslim-majority countries named in Trump’s executive order prohibiting all citizens from entry for 90 days. The other countries – apart from Iran, Syria and Sudan – are Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

In a June 26 ruling, the US Supreme Court revived parts of Trump’s March 6 executive order that had been blocked by lower courts. The highest court let the ban go forward with a limited scope, saying it cannot apply to anyone with credible “bona fide relationship” with a US person or entity.

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