The all-girl team was denied twice in the visa application process
The team took home a silver medal for courage
Teams of high school students from nearly 160 countries around the world convened this weekend in Washington to compete in the FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition.
But for one team – an all-girl group representing Afghanistan – the challenges began before they even stepped foot on American soil.
The team met with New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Wednesday at her office on Capitol Hill, where she presented them with congressional records detailing the events that ultimately led to the team’s silver medal win for the Rajaâ Cherkaoui el Moursli Award for Courageous Achievement.
“One of the things that I wanted to give you is a copy of a letter about your experience that I put in the congressional record,” Shaheen said to the team. “So it will be part of American history forever that you were able to overcome the challenges with your visas, that you were able to get here and that you were so successful.”
Shaheen gave each member of the team her own copy of the letter in English and in Dari.
The team members’ challenges began when their visa applications to travel to the US were denied – twice. After intervention from President Donald Trump, the Department of Homeland Security allowed the girls to enter on temporary “parole” status, two senior administration officials told CNN last week. They were able to stay briefly in the country without an official visa on the grounds that there is a public benefit to their visit, the officials said.
However, visa troubles weren’t the only difficulties the girls faced.
During the team’s meeting with Shaheen, the girls spoke of their excitement in being in the US and being able to participate in the competition. But the team members also spoke of how – because of customs issues when their equipment was sent to them in Afghanistan – they never received their equipment to work on their robot. Instead, to practice, the girls improvised with whatever materials they had. By the time they received the equipment, they had two weeks to complete their robot. Those two weeks directly coincided with part of Ramadan, during which the girls fasted as part of their observation of the holiday.
Shaheen and the team were later joined by fellow New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan. Together, Shaheen and Hassan represent the only all-female state delegation to the Senate.
“You are an inspiration to all of us,” Shaheen said, adding that her constituents often ask her about women in Afghanistan, particularly in regard to education.
“It’s so nice to be able to talk about your success,” she said to the girls. Five of the six members of the teenage team, the youngest being 14 years old, attended the meeting.
At the competition, the girls also got the chance to meet with Trump aide and daughter Ivanka Trump, who has voiced support for the team in the past, and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
The girls said they were looking forward to continuing their tour of Washington and visiting an amusement park in Maryland before they return to Afghanistan on Thursday.
FIRST Global organizes a yearly international Olympics-style robotics competition with teams from around the country, according to its website. This year, Washington played host to the inaugural game that will continue to be held in different countries around the world. “Team Europe” – a team based in Budapest, Hungary – took home the main prize this year, with Poland and Armenia coming in second and third, respectively. The Afghan team finished in 114th place.
The competition will travel to Mexico City for next year’s event.