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Afghanistan’s All-Girl Robotics Team Was Denied Visas for a Competition in the U.S.

Do you feel safer yet?

A team of six girls from Afghanistan has been denied travel visas to the United States, where they were hoping to compete in an international robotics competition with other STEM kids from around the world. The girls traveled twice to the U.S. embassy in Kabul, which is more than 500 miles from their hometown of Herat, to interview for their 7-day visas, and they were denied both times without explanation.

The girls were supposed to compete in the FIRST Global Challenge. The challenge for this year’s inaugural competition was focused on clean water, and so teams had to design robots who could “complete a variety of engineering tasks focused on ‘access to clean water.'” These tasks included “the storing of drinkable water, filtering of contaminated water, and procuring of new sources of water.”

For Aghanistan’s team, participation in the competition has come with numerous hurdles. To start, they don’t have a robust robotics industry to draw from, like competitors in some other countries. “It’s a very important message for our people,” said Roya Mahboob, Afghanistan’s first female tech CEO, who brought the team together, “Robotics is very, very new in Afghanistan.”

As Forbes reported, the six girls have also had less time than the other competitors, because they weren’t able to get their materials on time. “Their raw materials were held up in customs for months this spring, amid fears over ISIS’ use of robots on the battlefield,” wrote Forbes‘ Hilary Brueck, “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.”

95% of the teams competing have been able to secure visas, with Afghanistan and Gambia as the exceptions. Teams from Iraq, Syria, and Sudan will all be participating, so at least some countries escaped the racism of the U.S. visa system.

While this whole saga is heartbreaking, there is one bright side to the story: the girls’ robot made it through customs, and so they’ll still get to watch their creation compete via Skype. One of the team members, 14-year-old Fatemah, told Forbes, “We want to show the world we can do it; we just need a chance.”

Is this what Trump’s Muslim ban purports to “protect” the U.S. from? Is this what our visa system is built to keep out? Budding engineers? Hopeful, determined women in STEM? These are the sort of girls you keep out when you’re driven by paranoia, not by legitimate security concerns. This is what it looks like when racism and Islamophobia dictate your immigration policies, and this is what it looks like when a country is being cruel.

With participants from all over the world, the FIRST Global Challenge was meant to “reflect how we need to cooperate as a global society” to solve our problems.

Well. Great job on that one, USA.

(Via Jezebel and Forbes; image via Shutterstock)

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