The initial rejection and denial of an appeal was particularly heartbreaking for the team. They twice made a 500 mile trip from their Herat homes to the US embassy in Kabul to ace their interviews and secure the visas, despite danger and extreme heat. "We just wanted to show the power and skills of Afghan girls to Americans," 14-year-old Fatema Ghaderyan told the Associated Press.
Afghanistan is not included in Trump's travel ban, but it's tremendously difficult, bordering on impossible, for its citizens to obtain a visa. Just 32 were handed out in April of 2017, compared to 1,492 for neighbor Pakistan, according to Forbes. Nevertheless, teams from Syria, Sudan and Iran -- countries on the banned list -- were allowed to attend.
I truly believe our greatest power is the power to convene nations, to bring people together in the pursuit of a common goal and prove that our similarities greatly outweigh our differences.
President Trump reportedly pressed National Security Council officials for a solution, and they eventually agreed to allow the team in on "parole." That's a permit (not a visa) granted in exceptional circumstance where there's a "public benefit," allowing them stay in the country for ten days.
The White House's travel ban is back in effect after the US Supreme court partially lifted a block on the order. While the Afghan robotics team is now a feel-good story, the ban is still throwing thousands of peoples' lives in disarray, including many in the tech community. All told, 160 companies, including Google, Apple, Netflix and Spotify have denounced the order.
Because of the initial visa denial, the team expected to participate via Skype, as its ball-sorting robotics experiment had already been sent ahead and cleared customs. Now, all 163 teams from 157 countries will be able to participate in the competition in person.
Non-profit First Global created the contest as a way to spark interest in science and tech for high schoolers across the globe. "I truly believe our greatest power is the power to convene nations, to bring people together in the pursuit of a common goal and prove that our similarities greatly outweigh our differences," said president Joe Sestak in a statement.