For Afghanistan’s All-Girl Robotics Team Travel is About Opportunity, Not Experience

Update: As of July 12, 2017 the State Department has reversed it’s decision. Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team will be issued visas to travel to the U.S.!

A lot of us take travel for granted. Regardless of how involved you are in this hobby, chances are you see travel as a right, not a privilege. After all, we have The Golden Ticket: A U.S. Passport, the most wonderful piece of paper on this earth, aside from the U.S. Dollar. Having this Golden Ticket allows us entry to almost every country in the world, with little to no hassle whatsoever. Yes, we have to fill out paperwork and answer annoying questions when traveling to India or Russia, but we can still travel to those places as long as we have money (or miles) for an airline ticket. Travel is more or less a right for Americans. So many people around the world don’t have that right. For them, travel is a privilege and one that is all about opportunity rather than experience.

Safi Airways flying over Afghanistan's Mountains
Flying over Afghanistan’s Mountains

@JonDJackson shared a story with me about an all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan that had their U.S. visa application denied. These girls were hoping to travel to Washington D.C. this month for the FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition. Ask me anything about robotics and you’ll get a blank stare. I’m completely in awe of these girls and their abilities. You would think being able to attend a global competition open to people from 163 countries would be easy, right? Wrong. They are the only team, aside from the one from Ghana, who had their visas denied. Despite this setback, these Afghan girls will continue to build their robot…because while they can’t travel to DC, their robot can. How f***ed up is that?

For these girls, travel isn’t about taking a vacation, documenting their experience on social media, or experiencing new things. It’s about opportunity. Unfortunately, their opportunity has been denied precisely because of where they are from. Meanwhile, competitors from Iraq and Iran (which has been deemed an enemy of the United States) were issued visas. The leaders in this country are quick to point out that women in Afghanistan are oppressed. However, when it comes to extending opportunities to them, those same critics often go mute.

What I found inspiring was the spirit of persistence displayed by the girls in light of adversity. When their parts were held up in customs, they kept going:

“…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, and the team finally started working on their official FIRST robot, with remote programming help from a few robotics grad students at Carnegie Mellon.”

In April 2017, the State Department only issued 32 B1/B2 visas to Afghan nationals. Meanwhile 138 were issued to Iraqis and 1,492 to residents of Pakistan. I have nothing against either group and am happy they received opportunities that are rare in their homelands. But this blatant discrimination against Afghans is completely unwarranted. Especially if you take into account the percentage of terror attacks that have been attributed to people from Afghanistan, versus people from places like Saudi Arabia, whose citizens are free to travel globally despite their governments’ ties to terrorism.

Anyway, rant over. My point was to convey that for some people, travel is about opportunity rather than “fun” or experiencing something outside of the norm. I was one of these Afghan girls at birth and now I’ve crossed over to the privileged class of Americans with a U.S. Passport. I can go anywhere, for any stupid reason (i.e. mileage running). Yet these girls, who want to travel for educational purposes are denied that opportunity. It’s unfortunate, but also drives home the point for me that we shouldn’t take our travel privileges for granted.

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  1. It might be unwarranted for younger girls, but the ban isn’t at the micro level. Others in those countries are the issue, not the girls. And if you don’t agree that there are others in those countries that are looking to damage Western civilizations, then we strongly disagree with each other. I think you’re coming at this from an entirely wrong angle, you should be thrilled those girls even have the opportunity to compete in this program/contest. The fact that those girls can even participate in something as educationally uplifting as this contest is directly attributable to the United States of America, and no one else. You should praise this country instead of ridicule it.

    • I have to agree with Ariana on this one. The point is that teams from Iran and Iraq got visas but not Afghanistan. It would make more sense if all three were denied visas.

    • “Ridicule?” By saying we should all be grateful for our freedom of movement? Afghanistan isn’t on the banned list. You should read this post through the end (and the travel ban you’re backing) before making judgments. The fact that they didn’t get a visa to isn’t sanctioned by an official policy. So it isn’t “within the rules,” which I know makes discrimination an easier pill to swallow for some people.

      The notion that the girls’ ambition or interest in robotics should be attributed to the US is absurd. They were involved in this field before the competition was announced and continued working on their robot long after their visas were denied.

    • Here comes the dear-leader crowd.

  2. Very sobering article. Thank you for sharing and reminding me of my valuable U S Passport.

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