Six teenage Afghan inventors have been rejected for a one-week travel visa to escort their robot to the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition happening in Washington DC in mid-July, reports Forbes Magazine.
To interview for their visas, the all-girl team representing Afghanistan risked a 500-mile cross-country trek from Herat to the American embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Kabul was the site of several recent suicide attacks and one deadly truck bomb in early June that killed at least 90 people, according to Forbes.
Despite the recent violence, the teenagers braved the trip to the country’s capital not once, but twice, hoping a second round of interviews might help secure their 7-day visas after the team was rejected on its first try. But no luck.
Roya Mahboob, who founded Citadel software company in Afghanistan, and was the country’s first female tech CEO, brought the group of girls together for the project.
“It’s a very important message for our people” Mahboob says. “Robotics is very, very new in Afghanistan.”
She says when the girls were informed of their visa rejections, they “cried all day.”
Back home in Herat, Team Afghanistan is racing against the clock, putting the final touches on their ball-sorting robot that will travel to the U.S. to compete against 163 other machines from around the globe. The students are screwing together joints, programming the machine’s sensors, and still trying to find one chain. The six haven’t had much time to put this contraption together: their raw materials were held up in customs for months this spring, amid fears over ISIS’ use of robots on the battlefield. But instead of giving up, the girls took matters into their own hands, and designed their own homemade motorized robotic machines while they waited for customs to clear their parts. Just three weeks ago, those supplies cleared customs, and the team finally started working on their official FIRST robot, with remote programming help from a few robotics grad students at Carnegie Mellon.
FIRST Global President and former Congressman Joe Sestak says he’s disappointed that the “extraordinarily brave young women” from Afghanistan will not be given the opportunity to join the other students in DC this summer.
Sestak did say that the girls will be able to join the competition from their home in Herat, video conferencing in briefly to see their machine.
Team Afghanistan and team Gambia have also been denied visas so far.
“We aim to … become some of the young leaders of science and technology,” says a bio post for Team Afghanistan on First Global’s website from January 2017. “We want to develop and explore our minds and creativity and maybe unveil the genius inside of each one of us.”