Afghan, Gambian teams denied U.S. visas for global robotics contest but Sudan, Iran counterparts get in


Two Afghan girls refused visas to the United States for a robot-building competition said on Tuesday they were mystified by the decision, as the contest’s organizers said teams from Iran and Sudan as well as a de facto Syrian team had gained visas.

The unusual story of the Afghan all-girl team of robotics students emerged as the United States grapples with the legality of President Donald Trump’s order to temporarily ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries.

Afghanistan itself is not on the list and Team Afghanistan’s robot, unlike its creators, has been allowed entry to the United States. Asked by Reuters on Tuesday why the girls were banned, a U.S. State Department spokesperson cited regulations prohibiting the agency from discussing individual visa cases.

So the six team members will watch the ball-sorting machine compete in Washington D.C. via video link during the July 16-18 event from their hometown of Herat, in western Afghanistan, according to the FIRST Global contest organizers.

“We still don’t know the reason why we were not granted visas, because other countries participating in the competition have been given visas,” said 14-year-old Fatemah Qaderyan, part of the team that made two journeys to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to apply for their papers.

“No one knows about the future but … we did our best and we hope that our robot could get a position along other robots from other countries,” Qaderyan said.

Most of the female team members were either infants or not yet born at the time of the U.S.-backed military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime — whose ultra-hardline interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) banned girls from school, women from working outside the home and all females from leaving home without a male relative.

More than 15 years later, around 10,000 U.S. and allied international troops remain in Afghanistan to support an elected government in Kabul that constitutionally guarantees women’s rights but is increasingly losing ground to a Taliban insurgency that now controls or contests some 40 percent of territory.

Qaderyan’s teammate from Herat, 17-year-old Lida Azizi, was less forgiving of the U.S. visa decision. “All of the countries can participate in the competitions, but we can’t. So it’s a clear insult for the people of Afghanistan,” Azizi said.

FIRST Global’s president, Joe Sestak, said in a post on the organization’s Facebook page that he was “saddened” by the U.S. decision but the Afghan team would be able to connect with the competition via a live Skype video link.

“That is how we must now honor our fellow teammates, those brave girls from Afghanistan,” he said.

He added that the teams of 156 countries — including from Iran and Sudan, which are on Trump’s list of countries whose citizens are banned from entry — had received their visas.

“The support of the U.S. State Department (including its embassies) has been simply nothing short of amazing,” Sestak said in the post, adding that one other team, from Gambia, had been also denied visas.

Also approved for visas was “Team Hope,” a group of Syrian refugees, he said.

Syria is among the Muslim-majority countries named in Trump’s executive order prohibiting all citizens from entry for 90 days. The other countries, apart from Iran, Syria and Sudan, are Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

In a June 26 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court revived parts of Trump’s March 6 executive order that had been blocked by lower courts. The highest court let the ban go forward with a limited scope, saying that it cannot apply to anyone with credible “bona fide relationship” with a U.S. person or entity.

The United States has also denied visas to five teenage students from Gambia competing in a prestigious international robotics contest in Washington, the team’s leader said Tuesday.

The teens found the rejection “very disheartening,” said Mucktarr M.Y. Darboe, who is also a director in the largely Muslim West African nation’s ministry of higher education.

Darboe said the students were not given a reason for the visa denials in April, and he called the decision “disappointing and unfair.”

The U.S. Embassy in Banjul could not immediately be reached for comment.

Tiny Gambia has been through dramatic change in recent months, ousting via elections a longtime dictator, Yahya Jammeh, whose administration was accused of human rights abuses. The new administration, inaugurated in January, has promised widespread democratic reforms.

Gambia’s government has put forth the money for another round of U.S. visa applications for the robotics team members, and the teens are being interviewed again Wednesday, Darboe said. The students’ creation was being shipped Tuesday to the competition.

“We will go for an interview and hope for the best,” he said. Each student had to pay a fee of more than $160 for the visas and travel for the interviews.

For months, the team has worked on a machine that sorts balls as part of an effort to simulate solutions for separating contaminates from water.

FIRST Global holds the annual robotics competition to encourage learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, around the world. It invites one team from each country in an effort to build bridges, organizers said. This year’s competition takes place from July 16-18.

Gambia team member Fatoumata Ceesay, 17, said she hopes their second interview will get them to the U.S., but she was not optimistic.

“It’s very disappointing knowing that we are the only two countries that aren’t going to take part in the competition,” she said. “It would be an experience to see and discover other robots and ask questions and exchange ideas with others. It’s more than 160 countries, so we’d have the chance to mingle.”

The aspiring engineering student said she was grateful for the opportunity to work with the team and learn about building robots.

“This is the first time I’ve worked on a robot. … The experience is so amazing,” she said.

If team members are denied visas again, the Gambian American association will represent the robot at the competition, Ceesay said.

Sestak, the president of FIRST Global, said he has already promised the Gambia and Afghanistan teams that they will be Skyping into the competition as their robots are presented. “We still are making them a part of this,” he said.

Afghanistan has had a U.S. visa refusal rate of 75 percent and Gambia 70 percent, Sestak said.

Overall, he called the visa approval rate unprecedented, saying that “we had an extraordinarily fair process.” FIRST provided letters of support and informed teams about the questions that might be asked during interviews.

Forty African nations will be among those attending the competition.

“For Gambia I feel just as saddened. We started this effort in Africa,” Sestak said, adding that his organization hopes to hold the competition in various countries in the future to encourage wider attendance.

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