These teenage girls came from Afghanistan to build robots in Canada

The Afghan Dreamers, an all-teenage-girl robotics team from Afghanistan, made international headlines last year after twice being denied visas to visit the U.S. for the 2017 FIRST Global Challenge, a robotics competition involving more than 2,500 kids from 157 countries. They eventually got permission to make a trip to Washington, D.C. last summer, after some personal intervention from, of all people, Donald Trump. Now, seven of the team’s 12 members are in Canada, after being invited by FIRST Robotics Canada.

The girls, aged 15 to 16, are being hosted by the Oakville families of a FIRST Robotics team from St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School. They’re being escorted around the GTA by Roya Mahboob, the CEO of the Digital Citizen Fund, a U.S.-based non-profit that’s funding the team, with an eye toward changing prevailing Afghan cultural attitudes toward women in technology-related jobs. The Dreamers will be participating in provincial qualifiers for the 2018 FIRST Global Challenge, which will be held in Mexico City. They’ll return to Afghanistan in April.

We caught up with the team as they checked out a robotics event at Ryerson University earlier this March. With Mahboob interpreting, we asked four of them about their challenges and aspirations. Here’s what they said.

Fatemah Qaderyan

Age: 15
Hometown: Herat
Grade: 11

How did you get interested in robotics?
The turning point of my life was watching the movie I, Robot. I wanted to know how it was possible to build a humanlike robot, but there were difficulties in finding out more. When I asked my family, nobody knew. There was no high-level education in Afghanistan where I could go and learn about it. Because I was so curious from a young age, I got involved with the Afghan Dreamers.

What challenges have you faced?
In the beginning, one of the biggest challenges was that we didn’t have the equipment or machinery to build the different parts we needed. We had ideas for robots and wanted to work on them, but we couldn’t design them. We had problems getting funding, and some of the equipment we needed was really expensive and we couldn’t find it in Afghanistan. We had to buy equipment from outside the country. At the time, our government didn’t pay attention to us.

The other challenge we had at first was the culture barrier. Our families didn’t believe enough in our ability. Some of our families didn’t allow us to do much, and it was difficult to convince them to allow us to meet together in one area. One time, our coach took us to a small laboratory in Afghanistan to learn more, but the men there didn’t allow us to use the machines. They didn’t want girls using them, and didn’t believe we had the ability to use them.

When we couldn’t visit America last summer, it was like climbing Mt. Everest but not being allowed to stand on the peak. But then President Trump got involved and we had the visas.

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