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Afghan girls’ robotics team win contest in Europe

28th Dec 2017
Afghan girls’ robotics team win contest in Europe

(Photo: Courtesy of Embassy of Afghanistan, Washington, DC)

Harun Nasrullah

Afghanistan’s Girl Robotics Team won the Entrepreneur Challenge at Europe’s largest robotics festival in Tallinn, Estonia, having already secured a silver medal in a similar competition in Washington.

The teens aged 14 to 17, attracted international attention last summer when they were briefly denied visas to the US, won the Entrepreneurial Challenge at Robotex festival which took place November 24 through 26.

Software engineer and team mentor, Alireza Mehraban, told The Muslim News, “We are very pleased, happy and honoured to receive this award for the Entrepreneurial challenge in Robotics Festival. And we are thankful to organizer Robotex for this opportunity and everyone who gave a vote.”

Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the UK, Said Tayeb Jawad spoke of his pride of the girls who hail from the western city of Heart.

“They are an excellent example for people around the world of what can be accomplished by young Afghans if given the right support and the opportunity to excel in their education,” said the Ambassador.

Three of the team’s 12 members participated in the competition. Their challenge was to showcase a prototype that could solve a real-world problem, and that customers would want to buy. They won with a robot that could use solar energy to support farmers.

The girls’ participation in Tallinn was much smoother than their struggles earlier this year to overcome the bureaucracy of showcasing their work internationally.

Six of the team members were thrust into the spotlight in July when they were denied visas to take part in the First Global Challenge robotics competition in Washington, which was meant to showcase the role technology can play in water purification.

After a global outcry, the US reversed its decision, allowing the girls to enter the country through a “parole” process that authorities otherwise ineligible visitors on humanitarian grounds or because it benefits the public. The team, which had only two weeks to build its robot for the event because a shipment of parts was delayed, won a silver medal.

It was never clear exactly why the girls did not get their visas at first. But education for girls in Afghanistan – and the obstacles in getting it – is of great interest as the country has dealt with daunting challenges after more than a dozen years of war.

The girls faced an emotional setback in August, days after they returned home from the United States when the father of the team’s captain was killed in a suicide bombing.

Roya Mahboob, an Afghan technology entrepreneur who interpreted for the teenagers in the US, is the Chief Executive of Digital Citizen Fund, a women empowerment nonprofit organisation that sponsored the Afghan team. She spoke of excitement at the girls latest win in Estonia.

“We are all very excited and honoured to receive this award and I am so proud of the team. They are a new generation of Afghan women who get technology education and represent their country around the world,” said Mahboob.

She told The Muslim News, “Digital Citizen Funds is educating and empowering young women and girls in developing countries through technology and opportunities. We are not only sponsoring but we are also organising and leading the robotics team. We want to make this an all-girls team because it would definitely send a message to the world and every young woman in Afghanistan.”

She added, “This kind of competition plays an important role in motivating the students to improve their skills and solve existing problems to help their communities. This would enable the teams to not only build robots to compete but also learn about the market and one day start a robotics startup. And being Afghan young women in this competition would change the perception of workability in science and other industries in our communities.”

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