Cape Town - The six members of Afghanistan's all-girls robotics team have been granted their visas to attend the US international robotics competition - the same competition South Africa's Mighty Minds will be attending later this month.
The girls arrived at Kabul airport from their home in Herat in western Afghanistan on Thursday, 13 July to complete their third attempt to have the visa granted.
SEE: 'Unfair US visa process disheartening' but won't stop Team Mighty Minds SA
FIRST Global’s annual robotics competition encourages learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics around the world, inviting one team from each country in an effort to build bridges.
This year, teams from across the globe had to build a robot that has the ability to collect and dispose impurities in water. The success of such a robot will make strides for humanity - benefiting many rural communities and improving the quality of life.
Happy moment as the team departs
The third time's the charm for war-torn Afghanistan's all girls team who have been applying for US visas to compete in an international robotics competition in Washington DC.
The girls will receive their visas after being told President Donald Trump personally intervened to reverse a decision by the US State Department, says team manager Alireza Mehraban.
Mehraban says: "It's a happy moment for our team."
All six girls packed into a small taxicab to head to the US Embassy with their passports in hand. Mehraban says piled their luggage and himself into a second taxicab, while at the airport workers and passengers wondered at the media attention the girls were receiving, unaware of their identities.
Fifteen year-old Lida Azizi, one of the team members, was excited at the prospect of getting her visa.
"I am very happy. This is such an important trip for us," she said.
The girls will now be able to participate in next week's international competition along with entrants from 157 countries, which also includes Syrian refugees.
"It's important for Afghan women to be able to share their ideas," said Mehraban.
The girls' applications for US visas had been denied twice, but the White House says President Donald Trump intervened and they will be allowed in to participate in the competition.
The US State Department had declined to comment on why the Afghan team's visa applications were denied, saying that "all visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis in accordance with US law."
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed details of the reversal Wednesday, ending a saga that had sparked international backlash. The decision by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services means the six girls from the war-torn country will be allowed in, along with their chaperone, so they can participate in the competition.
The girls wanted to show the world that Afghans could also construct a handmade robot and they had been deeply disappointed by the initial rejections.
Sending a message to Afghan women
Mehraban said the team's participation will send a message to other Afghan women about the possibilities open to them.
Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative nation and while girls are in school today, gaining rights for women and girls is still a struggle for many.
ALSO SEE: UPDATE: US issues new visa criteria for 6 banned countries
Afghanistan is not part of Trump's order to temporarily ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries. Teams from Syria, Iran and Sudan — which are on that list — were granted visas to compete. Members of the team from Gambia were also granted visas after initially being denied.
Team member Fatima Qadiryan, 14, was overjoyed to be going to the U.S. for the competition.
"It's my dream to develop robots," she said. "I want to say thank you to the U.S. officials and to the US president who helped us."
SEE: Teens set to compete in global robotics contest crushed by 'unfair' US visa process
Previously a group of five teenage students from Gambia were denied visas by the United States to compete in a prestigious international robotics contest in Washington - and they too have been granted permission to attend the conference, along with South Africa.
The South African team had fortunately experienced no issues with having their visas and Team Mighty Minds South Africa, a group of six students from various backgrounds, aged between 14 and 17 years old have since departed for the US to attend.
The team members are:
- Johan Benade - Team mentor.
- Varbara Moagi - Grade 11 learner from HS Uitsig. Aspiring to become an industrial engineer, also the team spokesperson.
- Anro Swartz - Grade 9 learner from HTS John Vorster. Excels in logical thinking and problem solving, and the team's leading programmer.
- Garet Botha - Grade 9 learner from HTS John Vorster. A ‘gadgeteer’ that fiddles with mechanical concepts and electronic "gadgets".
- Mikhaeel Reddy - Grade 11 pupil from HS Uitsig. Has a passion for Science, Engineering and Mathematics. Aiming to be amongst the world's leading space engineers, and is also the selected team captain.
- Bryson Pillay - Grade 10 learner from HS Uitsig. Strategising and motivating the team, and second programmer for the team.
- Daniël Truter - Grade 9 learner from HTS John Vorster. Engineer in the making, and superb in solving mechanical challenges.
Bon Voyage all, we hope to see some exciting developments come out of this!
The nonprofit organizing the competition celebrated the reversal in a jubilant statement Wednesday.
"I truly believe our greatest power is the power to convene nations, to bring people together in the pursuit of a common goal and prove that our similarities greatly outweigh our differences," said Joe Sestak, president of First Global.
He credited "the professional leadership of the US State Department" for ensuring that all 163 teams from 157 countries, including a team of Syrian refugees, would be able to participate.
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