Afghan girls robotics team denied US visas to attend competition in Washington, DC

PHOTO: Afghan school girls test robot vehicles at a school in Herat, Afghanistan, July 4, 2017.PlayJalil Rezayee/EPA
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An all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan selected for an international robotics competition in Washington, D.C. this month will have to watch their robot compete from afar after its members were denied visas by the U.S. State Department.

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The team of six teen girls, based in Herat, Afghanistan, had planned to compete in the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge, in which teams of young women and men from around the world showcase robots they created.

On the competition's website, the Afghan team's bio said, "As a dedicated group of students, mentors, and volunteers, we aim to transform the culture of our community through the STEAM program and become some of the young leaders of science and technology."

FIRST Global President and former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak said in a statement that he is "deeply saddened about the Afghan team not getting visas." The organizers of the FIRST Global Challenge plan to Skype in the team from Afghanistan they can watch their robot and others in the competition.

The State Department told ABC News that visas are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and that they cannot comment on individual visa applications.

"While not privy to the exact reasons undergirding the decision, I know first hand that the war environment is both turbulent and dynamic in Afghanistan," Sestak said. "Visa decisions are often made regarding many whose lives are endangered; for example, those Afghans who supported US forces (such as by being interpreters) and who now seek a precious visa to the nation they supported because otherwise their own safety is in danger."

According to data from the State Department, just 112 business visas for visitors from Afghanistan, like those the robotics team requested, were granted in May of 2017. By comparison, 256 were granted to Syrians, 780 to Iraqis and 1,091 to Iranians.

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