FIRST Global hosts a yearly international robotics challenge, encouraging rising STEM leaders to engage in an "Olympics-style" robotics event that "builds bridges between high school students with different backgrounds, languages, religions, and customs." This year, Afghan girls do not have that bridge extended to them.
The team of six teenage girls from Herat, Afghanistan were meant to receive raw materials for their project from the U.S. in March, but amidst concerns of terrorism, the materials were delayed for many months. Nevertheless, the group built a motorized ball-sorting robot using household materials, and on their profile for the competition, they wrote: "As a dedicated group of students, mentors, and volunteers, we aim to transform the culture of our community through the STEAM program and become some of the young leaders of science and technology."
They traveled 500 miles from their hometown to the U.S. embassy in Kabul ㅡ where violence has recently surged ㅡ to apply for their visas. Twice, the girls experienced rejection.
The controversy is manifold; the girls have been denied entry, and the State Department has provided no explanation as to why. Granted, State Department records indicate the difficulty in receiving a business travel visa from Afghanistan; only 112 were given in May, whereas 1,091 were provided to Iran. Assumptions have been made linking their denial to the ever-debated travel ban, but countries on the ban list have been granted visas, including Sudan, and Iran. Only Afghanistan and Gambiaㅡanother predominantly Muslim country ㅡ have been kept from the event.
Joe Sestak, president of FIRST Global and former congressman has expressed his frustration with the decision made. However, he defended the efforts of the State Department, claiming that they had ensured the arrival of 156 other teams and provided the team with a fair opportunity. Attempting some form of reparation, Sestak has allowed a group of Afghan girls in the United States to learn to operate the robot submitted by the team and present it for the event. The teams for whom visas have been denied can further view the event via Skype.
Although efforts to accommodate the girls are admirable in intent, they hardly compensate for the reality of the situation. Afghanistan has seen women banned from school, from working outside their homes, and from leaving home without male relatives present. Being able to contribute to this competition demonstrates the drastic progress that the country has seen, as well as the hope that persists amidst Taliban insurgency controlling 40 percent of territory there.
It is difficult to see this story as removed from the circumstances and mindset of a post-9/11 world. The injustice the girls have faced should be remembered not only for their resilience, but for the progress we have yet to see. With or without the reasoning of the State Department, they are youths not unlike those of any other country; their efforts are ones of aspiration, not of threat.