In Afghanistan, We Laugh Differently

HERAT, Afghanistan — A 2017 wall calendar dangled from a nail over Kawsar Roshan’s bed on the otherwise blank wall of her room. “Best year for me” she had written, in curly script, above aerial photos of lakes and waterfalls. She drew a smiley-face next to her wobbly English letters.

The out-of-date calendar was “nothing too special,” said Kawsar, though she does love waterfalls, especially Niagara Falls — which she saw with her own eyes during that best year.

Kawsar, then 16, saw a lot of places as a member of Afghanistan’s first-ever girls’ robotics team. More than any other Afghan girl she knows. Or boy. Or even grown-up, for that matter.

You may remember hearing about that team. In the summer of 2017, Kawsar and five teammates, along with their coach, were denied visas into the United States for a robotics competition in Washington, prompting an international outcry.

Eventually, 53 members of Congress signed a petition and President Trump intervened to get the girls travel documents on special humanitarian grounds. They received a silver medal in “courageous achievement” and Congressional certificates of merit. Back in Afghanistan, they were received as icons of progress, though some sniped that they had dressed immodestly while abroad and compromised their marriageability.

In the time since, the photogenic troupe of teenage girls in head scarves and protective goggles has shuttled between their homes in Herat and competitions in North America, suitcases bulging with robotics contraptions, trophies and rice cookers.

They met Ivanka Trump three times. Justin Trudeau offered to be their backup robot driver. The rapper, one of their sponsors, took so many selfies with the girls that Lida Azizi, the team’s robot driver, called him, “a true friend.”

Over and over again, they were showered with a compliment to which they never quite knew how to respond: “It’s so inspiring to see an all-Muslim team.”

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