CBS NEWS – Caitlin O’Kane
A celebrated all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan made it out of the country safely and are now in Qatar. Officials there sent a plane to evacuate the young girls, after the team’s parent organization, Digital Citizen Fund, worked with Qatar’s government to secure visas.
The team, known as the Afghan Dreamers, made headlines in 2017 when they were rejected for U.S. travel visas twice while trying to travel to the country for an international robotics competition in Washington.
Their package of robot parts was delayed due to concerns about terrorism. They had only two weeks to build their robots, while other groups at the competition had much longer. But still, they won the first round of the competition, CBS News’ Chip Reid reported at the time.
The girls’ struggle to overcome war, hardship and U.S. bureaucracy on their journey to the U.S. capital made their team stand out among more than 150 competing in the FIRST Global Challenge, a robotics competition designed to encourage youths to pursue careers in math and science.
Girls in Afghanistan risk their lives to get an education, as under the Taliban, women are kept under the control of male family members and girls out of school. “Of course it’s hard for Afghan girls because there is no high school or no college,” 16-year-old Rodaba Noori, a member of the 2017 team, told Reid.
“We want to be the young leader of robotic, technology and science in Afghanistan. We want to work with men to improve our country and make it a better place,” Noori said.
To get to the U.S. for the competition, the girls traveled 500 miles – twice – from their home in western Afghanistan through Taliban-controlled territory to Kabul to get visas. Then-President Donald Trump intervened at the last minute to allow them into the U.S. during his administration’s ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries.
As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerated this month, Digital Citizen Fund founder Roya Mahboob and board member Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown requested assistance from Qatar to evacuate the girls on August 12. In a statement to CBS News, the fund said the two women worked for days “against the backdrop of great uncertainty, to organize safe passage for team members still in the country.”
The fund is “deeply grateful to the government of Qatar for their outstanding support, which included not only expediting the visa process but sending a plane after outbound flights from Afghanistan were repeatedly cancelled,” the statement said.
Allyson Reneau, an American woman who met the team in 2019, told the “Today” show she also tried to help the girls secure visas to leave Afghanistan and is relieved to know they are safe.