Afghan dreamers defy the odds

A group of six girls left their families in Afghanistan and travelled for the first time to Canada in January with a dream and a hope.

They were determined to build the best robot they could and compete in a variety of robotic competitions including the Ontario District North Bay Robotic Competition held this past weekend at the Robert J. Surtees Athletic Centre at Nipissing University.

Speaking very little English they struggled to understand their mentors. The team worked alongside another all-girls team from Oakville – SWAT771 from St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School.

Sarah Sils, a faculty member and SWAT771 robotics team leader, said last summer the Afghan dreamers were denied entry into the U.S.

The all-girls robotics team attracted international attention after team members journeyed 800 kilometers to the American Embassy in Kabul, only to have their visas rejected twice preventing them from travelling to the US to participate in FIRST Global Challenge, according to St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School.

One week prior to the event, the girls were finally granted entry into the United States and were able to compete.

“The robotics community was extremely upset. It wasn’t right that an all-girls team was being blocked from enjoying robotics. There was huge public outcry over this,” Sils said during Saturday’s competition.

The Afghan Dreamers were invited to compete in Canada. The team arrived in mid-January.

“Students felt helpless, however this was a tangible way to make a difference,” Sils said.

The team spent time with members from SWAT771. They toured the school and stayed with students and their families learning about Canadian culture.

The Afghan Dreamers were scheduled to return home April 2, however they’ve qualified for the provincials.

“This all-girls team will help future girls who had no idea what could be. This opportunity could lead to something big. They’re not just gaining confidence, but they’re challenging their culture,” Sils said.

Sahar Barak, one of the six girls on the Afghan Dreamers team, said robotics isn’t well-known in Afghanistan.

“It’s not big in Afghanistan. It’s a new field. Also robotics isn’t good for girls, that is what they say,” she said.

“But I really like programming and mechanics. We want to go back home and build a school focused on science, technology, art and math, where students who want to study robotics can have the chance.”

The odds were stacked against the Afghan Dreamers.

The team didn’t speak much English, there were cultural challenges and they were tasked to use tools to build a robot that they have never used before.

After the round-robin, the Afghan Dreamers were seeded as the 12th team out of 32.

They also secured the top rookie award from a competition at York University in Toronto a few weeks ago.

Thuvishan Rajagulasingam, the team’s Canadian mentor, told the girls he wanted to see them put their entire heart in the final leg of the competition.

He said competing against the top teams will not be easy.

“They came here to do their best and compete. I want them to prove that. They’ve put their heart and soul into that robot.”

Although they didn’t emerge from the Ontario District North Bay Robotic Competition as winners they did defeat the odds that were attacked against them.

They earned a spot in the finals, but couldn’t pull off the wins that were needed to proceed to the gold medal game.

Roya Mahboob, founder of Digital Citizen Fund who sponsored the Afghan Dreamers, said the opportunity will spark interest in engineering that has been predominately pursued by boys.

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