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Afghan Girls’ Robotics Team Won Visas. Now for the Real Contest.

Wai Yan Htun, an 18-year-old member of the Myanmar team who stopped by the Afghan table after the first three rounds to offer a taste of Myanmar peanuts and get the team’s signatures on his shirt, said: “We love them. They’re like superheroes in this competition.”

Colleen Elizabeth Johnson, 18, one of three teenagers representing the United States, said: “They’re celebrities here now. They’re getting the welcome they deserve.”

Before their first match Tuesday morning, the six Afghan teenagers were paired with the United States and four other all girls teams to compete in a demonstration match for Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser. Ms. Trump then spoke briefly to the crowd, applauding the students’ work and dedication.


Kawsar Roshan during a practice session with her team’s robot. Credit Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

“For many of you who have traveled great lengths to be here, we welcome you,” she said, turning to smile at the six Afghan girls. “It’s a privilege and an honor to have you all with us.”

She shook hands with the teenagers and posed for pictures before she left and the rounds continued.

Competition takes place in arenas built in the center area of Constitution Hall, where teams of three, equipped with kits that includes wheels, gears and two video game controllers, chase down blue and orange balls, which represent clean and contaminated water. In two-and-a-half-minute rounds, teams guide the robots to sweep the balls into openings based on their color.

“It’s way more fun, way more exciting than bouncing a ball,” said Dean Kamen, one of the organization’s founders and inventor of the Segway. “That’s not a competition out there. That’s a celebration.”

It was certainly a celebration for Roya Mahboob, a renowned Afghan technology entrepreneur who interpreted for the teenagers and came on behalf of her company, Digital Citizen Fund, a women’s empowerment nonprofit that sponsored the Afghan team for the competition.

The six students were chosen from an initial pool of 150 applicants. They built their robot in two weeks, compared with the four months some of their competitors had, because their kit’s shipment was delayed.

“I’m just proud that we show the talent of the women,” Ms. Mahboob said. “We see that there is change.”

The Afghan robot, named Better Idea of Afghan Girls, lurched across the terrain for the first round and skirted out of bounds, but 15-year-old Lida Azizi, a teal-colored fishtail braid dangling from underneath her white head scarf, flashed her teammates a thumbs-up as they cheered in Dari and applauded. As the competition progressed, they continued to make adjustments as they got used to driving their robot, an Afghan flag carefully attached. (The team has jumped to 69th place from 115th, out of about 160 teams.)

Alireza Mehraban, an Afghan software engineer who is the team’s mentor, said this was an opportunity to change perceptions about the girls’ country. “We’re not terrorists,” he said. “We’re simple people with ideas. We need a chance to make our world better. This is our chance.”


The team carried the robot, named Better Idea of Afghan Girls, into competition on Monday. Credit Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yet with more than 150 countries represented in the competition, the Afghan teenagers were not the only students who overcame bureaucratic and logistical challenges to showcase their ingenuity. At least 60 of the participating teams had their visa applications initially denied, Mr. Kamen said.

On Monday, with the news media swarming the Afghan girls, a team from Africa — five Moroccan students who also got their visas two days before the competition — huddled in a downstairs corner to repair their robot, which had been disassembled for last-minute shipment. An American high school built a robot on behalf of the Iranian team when sanctions on technology exports stopped the shipment of their materials kit. And on Sunday, the Estonian team built a new robot in four hours before the opening ceremony, the original lost in transit somewhere between Paris and Amsterdam.

But it was the Afghan team and Team Hope, which consists of three Syrian refugee students, that ensnared the attention of the competitors, the judges and supporters.

The high school students exchanged buttons and signed shirts, hats and flags draped around their shoulders. The Australian team passed out pineapple-shaped candy and patriotic stuffed koalas to clip on lanyards while the Chilean team offered bags with regional candy inside.

“God made this planet for something like this, all the people coming together as friends,” said Alineza Khalili Katoulaei, the 18-year-old captain of the Iranian team, gesturing to the Iraqi and Israeli teams standing nearby. “Politics cannot stop science competitions like this.”

After an award ceremony Tuesday night, the Afghan team is scheduled to attend a reception while some of the teams are scheduled to spend a couple of days exploring the nation’s capital. When they return to Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan, the Afghan teenagers plan to celebrate with their families and continue to work with their communities.

“I want to be the young leader of robotic technology in my country and show the talent of Afghans, be an example for Afghan women,” Rodaba Noori, 16, said.

She said she would remember the sisterhood she has formed with her teammates, the safety in the United States and the kindness of the people they’ve met.

“We want to take the best examples of humanity back,” she said.

Source: NYT > World

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