Founder Of All-Girl Afghan Robotics Team Says Trump's Unexpected Change Of Heart Is 'Beyond Words'

“It’s beyond our expectations."

In a surprising reversal, U.S. officials have officially granted a group of Afghan girls permission to enter the United States and compete in the FIRST Global robotics competition.

The decision came at the urging of President Donald Trump after a spate of criticism for denying the teenaged girls entry. The girls will join teams from close to 160 countries in the competition July 16-18, held in Washington, D.C. Roya Mahboob, who founded The Digital Citizen Fund that the Afghan team is representing, helped mentor the girls before the competition.  



She was stunned when she saw news of the reversal.

"I saw somebody tweet it to me and I was like 'oh my god,' I just couldn't believe it," Mahboob told A Plus over the phone. "It's beyond our expectations, beyond the words I can find."

 Digital Citizen Fund
 Digital Citizen Fund

Mahboob became hopeful after hearing that a group of 53 members of Congress had signed a letter urging U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to issue the team visa waivers, but she wasn't confident the State Department would reverse its decision. Because of the war in Afghanistan, many Afghans have resorted to overstaying their visas abroad and seeking asylum. As a result, countries are more reluctant to issue visas to Afghans, in some cases even if they are diplomats. 

But the powerful letter, along with media attention and global criticism, forced the U.S. government into action.

"Barring these hardworking, creative young women from a competition premised on global connection and innovation runs counter to the State Department's mission of fostering security and stability through peace," the letter argues.

The FIRST Global Competition challenged teams to build robots that can help solve the global water crisis. To compete, the Afghan robotics team built a robot that can sort balls based on their differences. They are expected to have the robot participate in a competition where it will identify and sort sets of balls flowing down a river. The different balls, of course, represent clean and dirty water. 

Mahboob, who in 2013 was named one of TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, said she was incredibly thankful for the media attention and to U.S Representatives Joe Courtney and Suzanne Bonamici, who together drafted the letter.  

"We are used to being ignored by our society and our culture and by our government and now we hear all of the people who are attending [the competition] and their lovely message," she said.

 Digital Citizen Fund
 Digital Citizen Fund

Heather Barr, a senior researcher in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch who spent six years in Afghanistan, was part of the initial outcry. When she heard about the reversal, she was happy for the girls — but said it was a sign of how shallow the United States' commitment is to girls' education. 

"The [Afghanistan] war was sold to us as we 'had to go rescue those poor girls who the Taliban wasn't allowing to go to school,'" Barr said. "And to be fair, many, many hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent. But I think this is kind of a classic example that we will write a lot of checks but still don't want them to come to our home."

Barr and her team have been working on a report coming out in October about girls' education in Afghanistan, which she described as "bleak reading." The number of girls going to school is actually falling in parts of the country as the Taliban recaptures territory

By the time girls are 12-15 years old, Barr says two-thirds of them are not in school anymore. On top of that, 41 percent of the schools who are hosting students in Afghanistan are without their own building. And more than half have no electricity.

 Digital Citizen Fund
 Digital Citizen Fund

And yet, there is some good news. 

"There are millions of girls in school and millions of girls who have been to school who never would have gotten to study at all under the Taliban," Barr said. "But we're not even halfway there and at this point it looks like we're just turning the corner and starting to go backwards. And we can't let that happen."

The condition of education in Afghanistan makes the fact an all-girls robotics team is coming to compete in the United States all the more remarkable. 

"Despite all the doom and gloom I have about what the situation is in Afghanistan and how unfair it was, at the end of the day, in this moment I'm just thrilled to bits that six girls are going to Washington," Barr said. "The happier side of the story is there are a few people who are making a difference for a few girls. Roya Mahboob, who mentored the girls who made the robot, is definitely one of those people." 

Joe Sestak, a former admiral and congressman, is the president of FIRST Global. Sestak actually did a tour in Afghanistan during his 31 years of military service, which gave him a unique perspective on why it was important that the girls attend the competition.

"I believe very strongly we can stop a problem with our military, but to fix it we need other elements like education," Sestak told A Plus. "I honestly believe the greatest power of America is the power to convene, to bring together nations and see their differences are so much less than what they have in common."

 Digital Citizen Fund
 Digital Citizen Fund


Sestak also emphasized that the State Department and the U.S. government worked hard to ensure that as many teams as possible could attend. Afghanistan wasn't the only team to initially be denied entry — teams from Gambia, Senegal, and Ethiopia all had initial visa requests denied. Now, the Afghan team is not entering on a visa but instead through a special system called "parole," which allows them to stay in the United States for 10 days. 

"I've gotta tell you I'm very, very proud that the State Department has been so helpful in this," Sestak said. "We have 100 percent entry approval rate. Afghanistan was the last one. All the way through they were just superb at pulling this off, they are the star player in making FIRST Global happen."

Perhaps most importantly, Sestak, Mahboob and Barr all emphasized the value of including an all-female team at the robotics competition. Recent stories from Silicon Valley make it clear women aren't just being discriminated in the tech and engineering fields in the developing world, but right here in America and in Europe as well. Mahboob says the American help in Afghanistan, and the opportunity for the Afghan girls, is invaluable.

"With the support of America right now, the number of women increased in schools and at universities," Mahboob said. "We have women in administrations, we have a woman in parliament. We've seen a lot of progress."

The Afghan team set to compete at FIRST Global.
The Afghan team set to compete at FIRST Global. FIRST Global

Barr also said that the girls participating in the competition won't just be meaningful for Afghans — many of whom will see the girls on the news back home — but will be meaningful for the Americans they meet, too.

As for Americans who want to continue to help, Barr had a simple message: 

"The most important thing that Americans can do right now is try to communicate to their local officials, to their legislators and the Senate and their House of Representatives and the White House that aid does matter," Barr said. "That we haven't stopped caring about the rest of the world. That Afghanistan isn't just a question for our military."

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