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Visas In Hand, Afghan Robotics Students Set To Depart For U.S. After Trump Intervention

Members of the Afghan robotics girls team arrive to receive their visas from the U.S. embassy in Kabul on July 13.
Members of the Afghan robotics girls team arrive to receive their visas from the U.S. embassy in Kabul on July 13.

Six Afghan girls have received U.S. visas and are set to fly to Washington after President Donald Trump intervened to allow them into the United States for an international robotics competition.

The all-girl team picked up their visas at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on July 13. The team was set to board a plane at Kabul International Airport within hours.

"We are so happy since we have been informed that we were accepted," 16-year-old team member Lida Azizi said. "From the students to the teachers, we are all so very happy."

The girls, who study at three different schools in Afghanistan's western Herat Province, had twice applied unsuccessfully for U.S. visas.

The girls are scheduled to take part in the FIRST Global Challenge, set for July 16-18 in the U.S. capital, where novice and experienced teams will present robots they have built and programmed from build sets supplied by organizers.

Azizi and her teammates have built a ball-sorting machine, a project that was chosen in a domestic competition among 150 girls.

"We work very hard," Azizi said from her home in Herat earlier on July 13. "We attend our training courses, we try hard at school while experiencing many difficulties because of the security situation in Afghanistan."

The fundamentalist Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan until 2001 ruthlessly opposed female education, and Taliban remnants and other militants still occasionally target female students or schools that accept girls. Armed opponents of the central government still control regions of Afghanistan, the vast majority of whose 33 million or so people are Muslims.

But Azizi's team has also faced other obstacles.

The "build set" that was sent to them to construct their robot for the U.S. competition reportedly got stuck in customs. The girls said they had to use household items, such as bottles and boxes, instead.

The team states on its website that the girls want to pursue their dreams "to make a difference in people's lives," saying most breakthroughs in science and technology "start with the dream of a child."

Earlier, Dina Powell, Trump's deputy national security adviser for strategy, said: "We could not be prouder of this delegation of young women who are also scientists. They represent the best of the Afghan people.... They are future leaders of Afghanistan and strong ambassadors for their country."

One of the pledges on which Trump campaigned last year was a call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," and his administration is waging a legal battle over an executive order that restricts entry to the United States from six Muslim majority states, but not Afghanistan.

A spokesman for the U.S. Homeland Security Department said after Trump's intervention was announced on July 12 that the agency had approved a State Department request for the Afghan girls to be allowed in, along with their chaperone. The team can reportedly stay in the United States for up to 10 days.

Trump's eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, who also is an assistant to the president, tweeted early on July 13 that she looked forward to welcoming the Afghan team to Washington.

The initial visa rejection for the Afghan team sparked a public backlash, with critics saying it sent the wrong message to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still fighting Taliban militants.

It was also suggested that the visa denials could undercut the U.S. administration's expressions of support for empowering women globally.

While the girls were initially denied visas, their robot was allowed into the United States. When it looked like they couldn't make the trip, the girls reportedly planned to take part in the competition via Skype.

Many countries routinely deny visas to Afghan citizens, arguing that visitors from the war-torn country often overstay their visas or refuse to return home.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. With reporting by AP and

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.