Afghan girls team come second place in US robotics competition

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Washington,July22:A robotics team comprising of six girls from Herat region in Afghanistan won a silver medal for “courageous achievement” on Tuesday at the First Global Challenge competition, an international robotics contest held in the United States of America. The girls, who were earlier twice denied visas to US after travelling around 500 miles over Taliban-controlled territory to US embassy in Kabul, were honoured for displaying “a can-do attitude throughout the challenge, even under difficult circumstances, or when things do not go as planned.”

The contest, which was held at American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington with teams from over 163 countries participating, saw the Afghanistan girls team getting a rank of 114th, ahead of United States and United Kingdom teams. But for the girls, who were earlier, not even allowed to enter the country, winning the silver medal was an exciting moment. Speaking to a local newspaper, Roya Mahboob, CEO of non-profit Digital Citizen Fund, who sponsored the Afghan girls team, said, “They got so excited, they were very happy (after winning the medal).” She further added that team did better than many other countries but could do better. “They did much better than many of the other countries, but of course we could still do better. We had less experience and practice,” Mahboob said.

Afghanistan team member Kwasar Rashan holds the Afghan flag while waiting for the opening ceremony march of the FIRST Global Challenge 2017, in Washington, Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The story of the girls gained momentum in recent days after they were denied visas a second time, which raised international debate over Trump’s hardened stance on border security. Even though Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-dominated nations, critics said that the denial of visa to Afghanistan girls is a result of his policies. The President himself intervened and directed State Department and Homeland Security officials to ensure that the girls get a chance to participate in the competition. In a press statement, US state department official Dina Powell described the girls as the “future leaders of Afghanistan”.

The Afghanistan team fixes their robot in between rounds challenge Monday in Washington. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The girls team also met with President Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who came to attend a demonstration match at the start of the competition. “For many of you who have traveled great lengths to be here, we welcome you,” Ivanka said to Afghan girls team, New York Times reported. “It’s a privilege and an honor to have you all with us,” she added, according to the report.

Speaking to The Guardian, 15-year old Lida Azizi, a member of the team described the competition as the “most exciting moment” of her life. “It never came to my mind that one day I would compete in a competition like this,” Azizi was quoted by The Guardian as saying. She further told the newspaper that she hopes she made her country proud. Her team-mate, 14-year old Somayah Faruqi, described the competition as “unique” and said she learnt a lot from teams from other countries.

Lida Azizi and Yasimin Yasinzadah, with Team Afghanistan. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Speaking to The Guardian, Afghan Ambassador, Hamdullah Mohib said that his meeting with the girls, at Dulles International Airport was the “proudest moment of my career”. He further added that the girls are a symbol of the progress made by the country after the war.

“These girls are actually representative of what progress has been made. They have gone through that process every year, through education. They started with their primary school and went up and today are competing in an international competition with the robots that they built,” Mohib told the newspaper.

Team’s mentor Alireza Mehraban, who works as a software engineer in Afghanistan, further told reporters that the girls had only two weeks to prepare their robotic model, because of delay of shipment, while most other participants had four months. She added that the competition will change the perspective of “what is possible” for Afghan women. “They say no, girls in Afghanistan cannot do this … but they can,” Mehraban said.

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