An all-girl team from Afghanistan was awarded a silver medal for “courageous achievement” at an international robotics competition in Washington, DC. They only made the competition after President Donald Trump personally intervened to get them visas.
The Afghan team made headlines earlier this month when their visa application was turned down by the US embassy in Kabul, prompting critics to blame Trump’s temporary travel ban, which affects applicants from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, all countries with a Muslim majority population. Afghanistan, however, is not on that list.
Trump himself reportedly urged the Department of Homeland Security to find a way for their visit to happen, and the team was able to enter the US on “parole.”
At the First Global robotics competition, the Afghan girls competed against 162 other teams from 157 countries, including a team of Syrian refugees. Their robot, named Better Idea of Afghan Girls, was able to sort orange and blue balls by color and put them in the correct places, simulating water purification.
“I am so happy and so tired,” Alireza Mehraban, an Afghan software engineer and the team’s mentor, told the New York Times after the competition.
“We’re not terrorists,” Mehraban said. “We’re simple people with ideas. We need a chance to make our world better. This is our chance.”
While they did not place in the top three, they won the hearts of the audience and the attention of the media. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with the team on the sidelines of the competition, and they were greeted warmly by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, during an exhibition match on Tuesday.
“For many of you who have traveled great lengths to be here, we welcome you,” she said, smiling at the Afghan girls. “It’s a privilege and an honor to have you all with us.”
In the end, the Afghan team won a silver medal for “courageous achievement,” having exhibited a “can-do” attitude under difficult circumstances. The team from South Sudan received the gold in that category, and the Oman team, whose students are deaf, received the bronze.
Other teams also showed determination and ingenuity. At least 60 teams invited to the challenge were initially denied their visas, according to Dean Kamen, one of the organizers and inventor of the Segway.
A team from Morocco, which received visas five days before the competition, had to hastily reassemble their robot that was taken apart for shipping. The Iranian team could not get materials due to US sanctions, so an American high school built their robot for them. On Sunday, the Estonian team built a new robot in the four hours before the opening ceremony, because their original was lost in transit, the New York Times reported.
Team Europe won the gold in the overall competition, with teams from Poland and Armenia took silver and bronze, respectively. The 2018 competition will be held in Mexico.