Afghan girls can attend US robotics clash after visa U-turn

An all-girl Afghan robotics team arrived at Kabul airport on Thursday to receive their US visas and head to the 'FIRST Global Challenge' robotics competition in Washington DC after having been twice denied entry to the United States.
The girls from the Afghanistan Robotic House, a private training institute, working on a robot at the Better Idea Organisation centre in Herat on July 2. They had worked for six months on their robot, which they built out of low-tech, recyclable mate
The girls from the Afghanistan Robotic House, a private training institute, working on a robot at the Better Idea Organisation centre in Herat on July 2. They had worked for six months on their robot, which they built out of low-tech, recyclable material such as bottles and boxes.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • A team of Afghan girls who had been denied visas to attend a Washington robotics competition are now allowed to come, organisers said.

US authorities had originally refused access to schoolchildren from a number of Muslim-majority nations to participate in the science contest, decisions that followed implementation of stricter visa policies under President Donald Trump.

But Mr Trump urged a reversal of course following public outcry over the Afghan girls' inability to attend the event, according to US media.

"I am most grateful to the US government and its State Department for ensuring Afghanistan, as well as Gambia, would be able to join us for this international competition this year," said the president of the First Global organisation, Mr Joe Sestak, who noted that teams from Yemen, Libya and Morocco would also attend.

"All 163 teams from 157 countries have gained approval to the United States, including Iran, Sudan and a team of Syrian refugees," said Mr Sestak, a former US navy admiral and congressman. "I could not be more proud."

The six girls from Herat, Afghanistan, were reportedly blocked from attending the robotics competition even after two rounds of interviews for a one-week visa. The rejections appeared to contradict the administration's claim that it wants to empower women globally.

"We were not a terrorist group to go to America and scare people," 14-year-old competitor Fatema Ghaderyan told AFP in Herat.

NO TERRORISTS

We were not a terrorist group to go to America and scare people... We just wanted to show the power and skills of Afghan girls to Americans.

FATEMA GHADERYAN, a 14-year-old competitor.

"We just wanted to show the power and skills of Afghan girls to Americans."

"We cried a lot after we heard our visa was rejected," said 15-year-old Kowser Roshan. "We thought we had good relations with America and expected to be accepted."

They told AFP they had worked for six months on their robot, which they built out of low-tech, recyclable material such as bottles and boxes.

Organiser Ali Reza Mehraban of the Digital Citizen Foundation said it had been especially difficult to find girls in deeply conservative, war-torn Afghanistan whose families would allow them to take part.

When the reversal was announced, Trump adviser and daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted: "I look forward to welcoming this brilliant team of Afghan girls, and their competitors, to Washington DC next week!"

A limited version of Mr Trump's travel ban - temporarily barring refugees and visitors from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - recently took effect, after the US Supreme Court allowed it to be enforced pending a full hearing in October.

Travellers from Afghanistan and Gambia are unaffected by that measure.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2017, with the headline 'Afghan girls can attend US robotics clash after visa U-turn'. Print Edition | Subscribe