Female Afghan students denied US visa to attend robotics competition

Teenagers from the Afghanistan Robotic House, a private training institute, practice at the Better Idea Organization center, in Herat, Afghanistan.

Six female students from war-torn Afghanistan who had hoped to take part in an international robotics competition in the US will have to watch via video link after their visa applications were denied twice.

The girls wanted to show the world that Afghans could also construct a hand-made robot.

But of 162 teams who planned to take part, the Afghan girls are the only nation's team to be denied visas by the US and must simply watch from their home town in western Afghanistan.

"When we heard that we were rejected we lost hope," said 14-year-old Sumaya Farooqi. "We applied again for the US visa and we were rejected again."

Farooqi and her teammates had already faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles to even get to a point where they could seek permission to attend.

It took them six months to prepare, often working seven days a week, as they constructed a robot that sorts balls, has the ability to recognise orange and blue colours, and can move objects to put them in their correct places.

The girls travelled from their homes in Herat after convincing family members to let them go - no small feat in a country where young girls are often discouraged from pursuing academic study, especially in subjects like science and maths.

They made the 500-mile journey to the US Embassy in Kabul twice because their applications were denied a first time, even though the embassy was targeted by a lorry bomb on May 31 in which more 150 people were killed and more than 400 others wounded.

Afghanistan is not part of US President Donald Trump's order to temporarily ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries.

Yet teams from Syria, Iran and Sudan - who are on that list - were granted visas to compete.

Members of the team from Gambia were granted visas after initially being denied. The applications of five teams were still in process.

The US State Department declined to comment on why the Afghan team's visa applications were denied, saying "all visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis in accordance with US law".

The competition from July 16-18 in Washington DC is an initiative by First Global, a not-for-profit charity that holds the annual international robotics challenge in hopes of sparking a passion for science and technology among high school students around the world.

First Global's president, Joe Sestak, said in a post on the organisation's Facebook page that he was "saddened" by the US decision.

Although the Afghan girls were denied entry into the country, the team's robot was not.

"How can someone accept that a robot makes it through customs and those difficult processes, but the inventors of the robot who have made and own it can't make it?" said Mohammad Reza Rezayee, director of the Afghanistan Robotic House Institute in Herat.

"It is really a question to be answered."

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