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Afghan Robotics Team’s Success was Highlight of Ambassador’s Career

By Teri West

After two denied visa applications and with five days to spare, the all-girl Afghan team traveled just in time for the international youth robotics competition. The six teens had already made news for themselves before even setting foot on U.S. soil, exciting audiences around the world.

For Ambassador of Afghanistan Hamdullah Mohib, however, that week was absolutely thrilling.

“It was the happiest moment of my career here to welcome them,” Mohib said, still in cheerful spirits at the end of the post-competition reception that the embassy hosted to honor the team. “I’ve never been so happy going to receive anyone from the airport so much as these girls.”

The six teens and their robot felt like a symbol of hope beaming out of Afghanistan and into the world, and it was all happening right in his backyard.

Just a few days prior to their arrival at Dulles International Airport, the president of the United States had approved the team’s visas, and in the time since, the girls had traveled from Herat to Kabul, picked up their visas, and hopped on a plane across the world to a country they had never visited.

And they had also become celebrities.

The team’s mentor Alireza Mehraban said that the airport welcome was the most memorable moment of his time in the country.

“All the people coming here and cheering [for] us - that’s important for us because [it’s] like hope for us,” the software engineer said.

Ambassador Mohib honors the all-girls robotics team at the embassy.
Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib honors the all-girl robotics team at the Embassy of Afghanistan on July 18 after the competion's closing ceremony. (Photo: Embassy of Afghanistan)

Mohib initially heard about the team’s visa troubles on the news and reached out to the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. To him, however, the story is much bigger than the president intervening on the girls’ behalf.

He sees the teens as representative of the progress that has been made in Afghanistan since U.S. engagement began in 2001. The youngest, who is 14, was born after the engagement started.

Sixteen years ago, girls in Afghanistan essentially did not attend school. Since then, partnerships between the Afghan government and funders such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank Group have helped develop educational opportunities.

One example is the Education Quality Improvement Program (EQUIP), which provides funding and teacher training to make schooling more accessible, particularly for girls. In the nine years since it began, EQUIP has established over 1,000 schools and certified over 100,000 teachers.

Afghanistan is devoting about 13 percent of its national budget to education this year.

“This is not just about six girls coming to Washington,” Mohib said. “It’s about six girls from Afghanistan, from a post-conflict country, coming to Washington to compete with their peers from [the] developed world at the same level.”

Ambassador Mohib speaks with guests at the robotics reception.
Mohib speaks with guest at the embassy reception. Nearly 300 people attended the event.  (Photo: Embassy of Afghanistan)

The airport welcome was just the beginning of a spotlight that followed the teens around D.C. for the next few days.

Members of congress took time out of their schedules to view the FIRST Global Challenge events at DAR Constitution Hall, Mohib said. Ivanka Trump stopped by for a demonstration round. Nearly 300 people attended the reception at the embassy including White House and Department of State officials.

“People canceled other events, other engagements, and in Washington on a two days’ notice,” Mohib said.

The young Afghans stood at the front of a warm crowded room in the embassy, receiving medals from congresswomen and viewing a video message from the first lady of Afghanistan. They gathered outside for photos then were given chairs and plates of food, huddling together on a patio, finally getting a moment to just sit and eat. When the event had finally died down and journalists were brought upstairs for a quick interview opportunity, the girls were reclining on a couch, scarves over their faces, too exhausted to talk.

No one is quite sure what their lives will be like back home. Mohib believes they will be an inspiration to their peers. The girls have expressed desires to continue pursuing technology.

The team meets with congresswoman Sheila Jackson.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) meets with members of the Afghan robotics team at the embassy. (Photo: Embassy of Afghanistan)

They also want to continue their education at the university level, Mehraban said.

Though opportunities for higher education are continuously unfolding, developing that infrastructure in Afghanistan is a gradual process.

The country’s first private all-women’s university opened last year in Kabul. Enrollment at public institutions has increased greatly since 2001 but as of 2015 was still less than 200,000 students, according to the Afghan Central Statistics Organization. Less than a quarter of those students were women.

Additionally, despite more outspoken activism and great political strides, women continue to be highly marginalized in Afghan society and consistently face violence and discrimination.

For six girls who grew up in a country that has experienced perpetual, dramatic change throughout their lifetimes, university isn’t guaranteed.

“They want to have a chance,” Mehraban said. “But I don’t know.”

Teri West is an editorial intern of The Washington Diplomat.




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