Afghan Girls Robotics Team Takes Home A Top Honor In European Contest

Nov 30, 2017

The Afghan girls robotics team has taken home a top prize at Robotex, Europe's largest robotics festival.

The team previously made headlines because their visas were temporarily denied in the run-up to a robotics contest in the U.S. — but they always wanted to be recognized for their work, not for the politics over their travel. Ultimately, they were allowed into the U.S, placed 114th overall (higher than the teams from the U.S. and U.K.) and received a medal for "courageous achievement."

Now, their solar-powered robot has won the "Entrepreneurial Challenge" at the Robotex festival, held in Tallinn, Estonia.

The challenge was new for Robotex, and it was the only category that the Afghan team entered. It required teams to "present their innovative, working robotic product, solving a real world problem that customers would want to buy." They needed to not only design a working robot, but also create marketing materials to promote it to the attendees of the festival.

The Afghan robot was named "Harēv," according to Robotex, and it faced off with seven other robots to win votes from the audience.

That winning robot was "a solar-powered robot that would help small farmers carry out tasks including seeding and cutting crops like wheat," the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports. Three teenagers from the Afghan girls team traveled to Estonia to participate in the contest.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Reuters, says the young women won a small cash prize as well as praise from Afghanistan's embassy in London:

"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," Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad said in an emailed statement.

"They are undeniably the future of Afghanistan."

They are also invited to an event in May, in the U.S., "where they will compete for investment money to start their own company," the foundation reports, citing the embassy.

NPR previously reported on what happened when the girls team sought to send some members to the U.S. for the FIRST Global Challenge:

"It has been an odyssey, but finally, a team of six Afghan girls will be able to travel to the United States to compete in a robotics tournament. Two previous attempts to secure visas, which involved traveling 500 miles to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, had failed.

"The U.S. State Department had told the Associated Press that it would not comment on why the girls' visas had been denied but that 'all visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis in accordance with U.S. law.' Afghanistan isn't one of the six countries targeted by President Trump's travel ban.

"Trump intervened to find a way to permit the girls entry, the AP reports. The National Security Council opted to 'parole' the girls — a status, the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services explains, requires "an urgent humanitarian reason or significant public benefit." The girls will be granted one-time entry to the country.

" 'We were disappointed, and we were feeling bad, but now we are very happy that they have given us a chance to go,' 14-year-old Fatemah Qaderyan told Reuters as the girls arrived in Kabul on Friday, bags packed for their trip to Washington, D.C."

When they arrived, the girls "waved their country's flag during the parade of nations at the event's opening ceremonies," NPR's Claudio Sanchez reported:

"And they showed off their robot. Like all the entries, it was designed to separate balls representing water particles and water contaminants, among other tasks. ...

" 'The girls did a good job in the competition,' says Roya Mahboob. She's a tech entrepreneur from Afghanistan and the CEO of the Digital Citizen Fund, the nonprofit which sponsored the team.

" 'They did much better than many of the other countries, but of course we could still do better. We had less experience and practice,' Mahboob says."

Now, they have a little more practice under their belt.

The girls returned to Afghanistan as soon as the contest in Estonia was over, because some of them had exams, Mahboob told The New York Times.

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