Afghan girls granted US visas for robotics competition after twice being denied

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A team of Afghan girls will be allowed to enter the US for a robotics competition, Politico reports, after twice having their visa applications rejected for unknown reasons. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders tells the Associated Press that President Donald Trump intervened to allow the girls to enter the US.

The decision to deny visas for the team of six teenage girls sparked criticism from human rights groups, which accused US officials of abandoning efforts to support the empowerment of Afghan women, and raised concerns over the White House’s visa policy for Muslim-majority countries.

The decision to issue visas to the Afghan team follows a similar reversal concerning a team from Gambia, which was initially barred from entering the US. The US lifted restrictions on the Gambian team last week.

First Global, the organization that is hosting the international competition, welcomed the news that the Afghan and Gambian teams would be allowed to participate in it. The competition in Washington, DC will include teams from more than 160 countries, including students from Syria, Iran, and Sudan — countries that, unlike Afghanistan, are covered by Trump’s controversial travel ban.

“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,” First Global president Joe Sestak said in a statement Wednesday. “That is why I am most grateful to the US Government and its State Department for ensuring Afghanistan, as well as Gambia, would be able to join us for this international competition this year.”

It is still not clear why the Afghan and Gambian teams had their visa applications initially rejected. The US State Department tells the AP that “all visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis in accordance with U.S. law.”

Without visas, the Afghan team would have had to remotely participate in the competition via Skype. Their submission, a robot that sorts balls, took six months to build in western Afghanistan.

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“We want to make a difference and most breakthroughs in science, technology, and other industries normally start with the dream of a child to do something great,” the team wrote on their competition page. “We want to be that child and pursue our dreams to make a difference in people’s lives.”

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