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    Members of Afghan robotics girls team which was denied entry into the United States for a competition, work on their robots in Herat province, Afghanistan July 4, 2017

    Balls Up: US Visa Rules Deny Afghan Schoolgirls Chance to Shine in Robotics Comp

    © REUTERS / Mohammad Shoib
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    A group of Afghan schools competing in the annual FIRST Global robotics competition were bitterly disappointed to be denied visas to the US, their supervisor Ali-Reza Mehraban told Sputnik.

    A group of Afghan schoolgirls have been denied a visa to the US to compete in the annual FIRST Global challenge, an international robotics competition for budding engineers from 162 countries around the world which aims to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

    The girls had spent months putting together their entry and traveled almost 1,000km from their home town of Herat to the Afghan capital Kabul, only to have their visa applications turned down.

    The girls' story has caused outrage on social media, where US Senator Bernie Sanders has spoken out on the girls' behalf, and a petition has been set up to persuade the State Department to change its mind.

    Ali-Reza Mehraban, an expert in robotics who supervised the girls' project, told Sputnik that the girls' invention is a ball-sorting robot, which can carry out several functions.

    "It can perform four functions. The first is to collect the balls – we have two types of balls, blue and orange and have called this function 'Collection Balls.' The second function is the separation or, more precisely, the sorting of the balls. That is, the robot independently determines which ball to put in which cell: in the orange or blue one. The third function is to transport the right balls to the right cell. The fourth function is to lift up these balls and play with them. These are the four gaming functions of our robot, which we have called the 'Smart Ball Collector,'" Mehraban explained.

    The girls' robot
    © Photo : Ali-Reza Mehraban
    The girls' robot
    Mehraban said the girls were bitterly disappointed to be refused the opportunity to show off their robot with the other contestants. They have been told by organizers that they will be able to take part via Skype instead.

    "In January this year, we decided to start a training program in robotic and we got Ms. Rooya Mahboob, a high-profile specialist from Herat in the field of IT, involved in the project. She sponsored and organized some special training courses and it was thanks to her efforts that we were able to apply for the FIRST Global Challenge – the first ever international robotics competition," Mehraban explained.

    "We invited the most talented children from schools all over the country to join the team. We used exam results to choose the 20 most capable children, and it so happened that most of them were girls. We began teaching them and two months later, they prepared the full package of documents for the application.  We selected the most talented pupils for the team, including Lida Azizi, Fatemeh Kaderiyan, Somayeh Forughi, Rudabeh Nuri, Kawsar Roushan and Yasemin Yatim-zade. Some of the girls studied in public schools, some of them trained in private schools, but they all had a special passion for robotics."

    Members of Afghan robotics girls team who were denied entry into the United States for a robotics competition
    © Photo : Ali-Reza Mehraban
    Members of Afghan robotics girls team who were denied entry into the United States for a robotics competition
    "It should also be noted that these girls were absolutely ready to go abroad, their passport and other accompanying documents were in perfect order. In our country, it's very, very difficult to get a passport for girls, especially at such a young age. Some of the other participants from the selected 'twenty' would also have gone, but they weren't able to get a passport," Mehraban said.

    Even before the US denied the entry, the girls had to overcome a lot of obstacles just to make their application for the competition.

    "Four months ago, the organizers of the FIRST Global Challenge sent us a package of documents that we had to fill out in order to participate, and we had to send the robot itself, too. However, at customs in Kabul Airport, our robot aroused great suspicions from the security services. They said that they didn't understand what it was, whether it was a robot or a surveillance device often used by Daesh fighters. As a result, everything was confiscated. It was really sad and we were all very upset. We lost so much time because of this misunderstanding."

    "It was only after three and a half months that we were able to pick up a package of documents from Kabul airport and prepare them again for shipment. We only had two weeks to reassemble the robot according to the requirements we received. Nobody believed that we would be able to finish everything. As a curator, I personally worked day and night with the girls. As a result, the whole package was prepared and we sent it all via FEDEX international mail service to the USA."

    Members of Afghan robotics girls team who were denied entry into the United States for a robotics competition, work on their robots in Herat province, Afghanistan July 4, 2017
    © REUTERS / Mohammad Shoib
    Members of Afghan robotics girls team who were denied entry into the United States for a robotics competition, work on their robots in Herat province, Afghanistan July 4, 2017
    After the organizers received the documents, they sent the girls invitations to the US to take part in the competition, and the teacher accompanied the girls on the 1000km journey from Herat to the US Embassy in Kabul. However, the girls were bitterly disappointed by the verdict from the US State Department. Of seven applicants, just one of the girls and their teacher were provisionally told they were eligible for visas.

    "The first time, the consulate explained to us that the rules dictate that they only have a limited number of visas, so not everyone can get a visa. I accompanied the girls all this time as a curator."

    "On June 12 we again applied but faced a number of problems. There was a terrible terrorist attack in the center of the capital, a wave of protests broke out. Protestors smashed up tents and camps near the government. In these most difficult and dangerous conditions, afraid of death, we nevertheless arrived in Kabul to get the visas. But this time all of us were denied visas … the consulate simply told us that no more visas can be issued for the FIRST Global Challenge program!"

    "After so many difficulties and ordeals the girls wept non-stop for 5-6 hours. For my part, I supported them the best I could and told them that this is not a defeat but a life experience. We had just wanted to show the whole world that Afghan girls are capable of so much and are in no way inferior to other people living in peace and without war."

    "In any case, we have to show our achievements to the world, we will send our robot to the US even if we do not go ourselves. We returned to Herat with this attitude and completed our robot. In the end, a completely different group of our compatriots managed to take the robot to the USA, where they will present it as representatives of our country. There was no other way for us, now we will have to watch the competition via Skype," Mehraban said.

    • Scooter
      A model scooter the girls made
      © Photo : Ali-Reza Mehraban
    • Locomotive
      A model locomotive the girls made
      © Photo : Ali-Reza Mehraban
    • Tank
      A model tank the girls made
      © Photo : Ali-Reza Mehraban
    1 / 3
    © Photo : Ali-Reza Mehraban
    A model scooter the girls made

    "I want to note that our girls are very talented, their abilities manifest themselves in a variety of spheres. But robotics is, of course, a new direction. It is important to provide the pupils with the appropriate conditions for training and safety. If all this comes to pass, our girls are ready to surprise the world using the simplest things to hand. For example, we built our first vacuum cleaner using simple Coca-Cola bottles. The girls are so talented that they are able to construct something incredible literally from garbage, in the most challenging technical conditions."

    "That's why Ms Rui Mahbub and I will continue in every possible way to support the girls at all stages of their scientific research. We are trying to show the whole world that Afghan women, despite the difficult conditions they live in, the destruction and incessant war, are very talented inventors. After they finish school our girls intend to continue their education abroad, they would like to return home to share their knowledge with other girls and thereby educate future engineers and advanced specialists who are ready to serve for the good of their homeland," Mehraban said.


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