July 18, 2017


[For three days in the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, where an African-American woman was once denied the right to sing before an integrated audience in the 1930s, the Afghan girls in head scarves were stars on an international stage, with cameras, lights and whispers trailing them from practice to competition.]

By Emily Cochrane 
The Afghan team at the opening ceremony of the First Global 
robotics competition in Washington on Sunday. Credit Cliff 
Owen/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Afghan teenager didn’t say anything as she scrolled through three days’ worth of pictures on her phone, her finger swiping across the screen. Feet dangling over a Washington fountain. Posing with students from Iraq and Iran. A meal carefully laid out on an airplane tray.

But then the teenager, Kawsar Roshan, paused, tilting the screen to show a picture of a square piece of United States government paperwork she received only last Thursday.
“This is my visa,” the 15-year-old said with a broad smile. “It’s a memory.”

It took an international outcry and intervention from President Trump and other officials to allow her and five other girls from an Afghan robotics team to receive visas after two rejections, letting them travel to the United States for participation in First Global, an international robotics competition. They competed wearing handwritten name tags and team shirts without a country name.

For three days in the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, where an African-American woman was once denied the right to sing before an integrated audience in the 1930s, the Afghan girls in head scarves were stars on an international stage, with cameras, lights and whispers trailing them from practice to competition.

“Inspiring, isn’t it?” said Mark Benschop, 44, a parent with the Guyana team, snapping photographs of the Afghan girls making final adjustments to their robot on Monday.

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-female 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. “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.”

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. Visa applications were initially denied for at least 60 of the participating teams, 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, 18, the 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 slated to spend a couple of days exploring Washington. 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 had formed with her teammates, the safety in the United States and the kindness of the people they had met.

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