12 Dec Fatemah – The Afghan Girl with a Dream
The all-girls Afghan robotics team, also known as the Afghan Dreamers, made headlines in the summer of 2017 for being denied visas to attend the 2017 FIRST Global Challenge in Washington, D.C.
This wasn’t the first challenge they had faced. Girls building robots? Some girls’ families did not approve, and pulled them from the process. The robot kit was held in customs for three months, limiting the amount of time they had to build the robot. They had not done anything like this before, and time was precious.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” said Fatemah, the team’s captain, in an interview for the team’s profile video.
FIRST Global had initially connected with Roya Mahboob, the founder of an organization called the Digital Citizen Fund, to organize the team from Afghanistan. Out of the 150 students that initially applied, only six were selected for the final team.
A few weeks before the event, they were abuzz with anticipation. And then, they got the news — their visas had been denied. So the team set off on the over 12-hour trek from Herat to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. It was dangerous, but they attempted it twice, and yet both times were denied. They were heartbroken.
The team decided to take to the media, and coverage broke out. Eventually, with just days until the competition, the United States’ Administration stepped in and granted the team visas.
They made it to the competition in time and ended up ranking 114th out of 163 — not bad for first-timers — and won the silver medal for the Rajaa Cherkaoui El Moursli Award for Courageous Achievement.
But it did not end there.
In a country that had not too long ago seen the Taliban prevent girls from going to school, these girls had set an example. Today, almost 40 percent of Afghan girls attend school. However, due to poverty, a lack of teachers and supplies, and cultural prejudice, millions of girls still do not have access to education.
Their participation in the FIRST Global Challenge experience had catapulted them into a new world. The team had achieved something great, touching the hearts of people around the globe in the process. And they knew they could do more.
“I think I must represent not only my voice and beliefs, but the voice of all Afghan women,” Fatemah said in an interview with CNN. “I want to stand up for their rights, and represent the voices of those who have been silenced in our society, on a global level. To show the world that there are women in Afghanistan and all around the world that are able to speak in the field of STEM and technology.”
The team, which had grown to twelve members, went on to compete in Estonia, Poland, and Canada, where they won more awards. They met with world leaders, including the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, representatives from the U.S. State Department, and more. They spoke out, in the news and at events like the Oslo Freedom Forum.
It was through the support of those like Roya Mahboob and her organization, government officials, and individuals and organizations around the world that lended their hands, voices, and financial backing to help these girls achieve all that they have.
And now the team is building a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) school. The girls know how important it is to share what they have learned with their community and other Afghan women. Not only do they want to empower their fellow citizens, but also reclaim the narrative of their country and what they are capable of achieving.
“Everything in a child starts with imagination,” Fatemah said in her talk at the 2018 Oslo Freedom Forum. “After a while, imagination grows and becomes a dream. Once they have that dream, they want to achieve it in reality. However, children who live in conflict zones… they are told that their dreams will only remain dreams. Leadership must be in the hands of the youth, the generation that considers technology as a weapon against war.
“Now that we have gotten our first taste of education, we are determined to get as much as we can to build a better future for our country.”