KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Six female students from war-torn Afghanistan who had hoped to participate in an international robotics competition in the U.S. this month will have to watch via video link after their visa applications were denied — not once, but twice.
The girls wanted to show the world that Afghans can also construct a hand-made robot. But of 162 teams who planned to participate, the Afghan girls are the only nation's team to be denied visas by the U.S. and must participate from afar, watching from their hometown in western Afghanistan.
"When we heard that we were rejected we lost hope," said 14-year-old Sumaya Farooqi. "We applied again for the U.S. visa and we were rejected again."
Farooqi and her teammates had already faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles to even get to a point where they could seek permission to attend. It took them six months to prepare, often working seven days a week, as they constructed a robot that sorts balls, has the ability to recognize orange and blue colors, and can move objects to put them in their correct places.
The girls traveled from their homes in Herat after convincing family members to let them go — no small feat in a country where young girls are often discouraged from pursuing academic study, especially in hard sciences such as math.
They made the 800-kilometer (500-mile) journey to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul twice because their applications were denied a first time, even though that location was targeted by a deadly truck bomb on May 31 in which more 150 people were killed and more than 400 others wounded.
War-torn Afghanistan has faced a series of large-scale attacks as the Taliban stepped up its war against the Kabul government in this year's summer offensive. In addition, the emerging Islamic State group affiliate in Afghanistan has tried to increase its footprint with attacks in urban areas.
Afghanistan is not part of U.S. President Donald Trump's order to temporarily ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries. Yet teams from Syria, Iran and Sudan — who are on that list — were granted visas to compete. Members of the team from Gambia were granted visas after initially being denied. The applications of five teams were still in process.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on why the Afghan team's visa applications were denied, saying "all visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis in accordance with U.S. law." The agency cited a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act that "prohibits us from discussing individual visa cases."
The competition is an initiative by First Global, a not-for-profit charity that holds the annual international robotics challenge in hopes of sparking a passion for science and technology among high school students around the world. It is an "Olympics"-style competition in which one team from every nation is invited to participate. It takes place from July 16-18 in Washington D.C.
First Global's president, Joe Sestak, said in a post on the organization's Facebook page that he was "saddened" by the U.S decision.
Although the Afghan girls were denied entry into the country, the team's robot was not.
"How can someone accept that a robot makes it through customs and those difficult processes, but the inventors of the robot who have made and own it can't make it?" said Mohammad Reza Rezayee, director of the Afghanistan Robotic House Institute in Herat. "It is really a question to be answered."
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman in Washington and Ahmad Seir in Herat, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.