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At first denied U.S. entry, Afghan girls’ robotics team shows the world what they can do

An all-girls team from Afghanistan finally reached the U.S. to participate in a robotics competition. Their visas were denied twice by American officials until public pushback prompted President Trump to intervene. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza talks with some of the girls and Jeffrey Brown discusses how their story plays into wider immigration questions with Alan Gomez of USA Today.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: An all-girls team from Afghanistan finally made it to the U.S. this week to participate in a robotics competition.

    Their visas were denied twice by American officials, until criticism prompted President Donald Trump to intervene and reverse the decision. The girls joined high school students from more than 150 other countries, many of whom had never seen or made a robot before.

    Jeffrey Brown will look at some of the immigration policy issues this is raising once again.

    But we start with special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of our partner Education Week. She spoke to some of the Afghan girls and other international students in Washington, D.C.

    It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Hundreds of high school students arrived in Washington from across the globe, robotics teams from Jamaica to Jordan, Canada to Australia. There was even one representing refugees.

    But none of the students had a more unlikely journey, perhaps, than the crowd favorite.

  • Man:

    Team Afghanistan.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Sixteen-year-old Kawsar Roshan, one of the six girls, says this was her proudest moment.

  • Kawsar Roshan, Team Afghanistan (through interpreter):

    I was very happy, and I was proud when the people supported us. I’m happy when people feel that Afghans can do something.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    This robotics competition is part of an effort to get more young people, particularly from underrepresented countries, to enter STEM fields. It’s a term used to include science, technology, engineering and math.

    A few months ago, all teams received boxes containing hundreds of identical parts, and the students had to figure out how to take the wheels and gears, sensors and sprockets, and create a robot.

  • Fatemah Qaderyan, Team Afghanistan (through interpreter):

    We have an old computer, but often it doesn’t work.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Fatemah Qaderyan is from the Herat province. Almost 40 percent of school-age children don’t have access to education. Even when they do, there’s often a shortage of teachers and textbooks.

    For many Afghan girls, Fatemah says even getting to school can be a challenge, because they need a man’s permission.

  • Fatemah Qaderyan, Team Afghanistan (through interpreter):

    We can’t go alone. And we need someone to support us, like a man, to get us to the school, or other places we want to go.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Their coach, Alireza Mehraban, says technology is hard to come by.

  • Alireza Mehraban, Coach, Team Afghanistan:

    We don’t have equipment of robotic. We don’t have it.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    He says even though these girls were chosen from more than 150 students, because the team has no experience in robotics, some doubted their abilities.

  • Alireza Mehraban:

    They say you can’t, because it’s impossible. For girls in Afghanistan, can’t do this, really. It’s too hard for us.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    And what did you say when they said that?

  • Alireza Mehraban:

    We say, we can do it. Just we say, we can do it. Just give us a chance.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Then, after they built their robot, their visas were denied twice. They were not given any explanation.

  • Fatemah Qaderyan

    (through interpreter): When we applied and were rejected, we are so disappointed. We are crying a lot for six or seven hours.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Mehraban can hardly believe they’re here.

  • Woman:

    How do you feel when everyone cheers team Afghanistan?

  • Alireza Mehraban:

    What I have to say, because the feeling like I’m so happy, so happy. I can’t describe it best. Really, I can’t describe it best, because a feeling like I can’t control myself.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Eighty percent of these teams are made up of boys, a gender gap that is reflected in STEM fields worldwide. But the inequality in education is far bigger than just STEM subjects and Afghanistan.

    Around the world, more than 60 million girls don’t have access to any education. The reasons vary, from wars, to cultural mores, to something as simple as distance.

    Melissa Lemus is with team Honduras.

  • Melissa Lemus, Team Honduras (through interpreter):

    Some of my friends live about two hours from the high school, or they have to take a bus.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    While Gregine Kumba Natt with team Liberia says often they don’t have electricity during the day.

  • Gregine Kumba Natt, Team Liberia:

    We need to charge the robots, but in our country, we have poor electricity. We couldn’t charge our phones either, and because of that, usually, we don’t practice at day. We practice in the night hour.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    And like many countries here, Ruby Balami from team Nepal says her school doesn’t have a science lab, so, initially, she was nervous when she saw teams from developed countries, such as Japan and the U.S.

  • Ruby Balami, Team Nepal:

    We think that they are much competitive, and it was a scary thing, but, coming here, making them friends, now we have — feel much more better, and now we are much more confident.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Some last-minute tinkering and intense discussions, and then it was showtime.

    Each country’s team was paired with two others, often not speaking the same language. Learning to collaborate and communicate is part of the goal, says Dean Kamen, the founder of the competition, FIRST Global Challenge.

  • Dean Kamen, Founder, FIRST Global 2017 Challenge:

    You’re the first generation on this planet that could grow up with all of its kids knowing each other, working together, creating value, so that you could all have better lives, we can have a better world. And that’s the important thing here.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Fatemah loved meeting students from other countries. She says she knows people think of Afghanistan as a place of violence and poverty, but she wants to change that perception.

  • Fatemah Qaderyan,

    Team Afghanistan (through interpreter): War like a habit for us, because bomb blasting and counterblasting and killing people so normal for us, because we see it a lot.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    She believes the only way that can change is through education. Her mother stopped at grade six, and even now more than three million children, mostly girls, are not enrolled in school.

    But someday, Fatemah wants to get a Ph.D. in computer science.

  • Fatemah Qaderyan

    (through interpreter): Because I need this, our country needs this, to have women educated, to be new generation in the future. I want to show the world what Afghan girls, or young girls, can do. We can show them, when we have a creative idea, we can do it.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I’m Kavitha Cardoza in Washington, D.C.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As Kavitha said, the visa question for the Afghan girls gained national attention and the direct intervention by President Trump.

    Alan Gomez from USA Today joins me now to talk about that part of the story.

    So, Alan, was this a special case, an outlier? What, if anything, does it tell us about the current situation with visas?

  • Alan Gomez, USA Today:

    Well, absolutely, this was a complete outlier.

    Understand that the Trump administration has made clear throughout its time that it will handle any visa application on a case-by-case basis, exceptions can always be made.

    But this case definitely represents a very sharp departure from what has been a pretty clear strategy from this administration to limit, to restrict, to in some cases completely suspend immigration from terror-prone countries.

    Now, understand that, you know, we’re still dealing with the travel ban that the president has been trying to implement now for months that is directed at six countries that have been labeled as having very close ties to terrorism. He has completely suspended the refugee program, all in the name of national security.

    And Afghanistan has never been on any of those lists of countries, but, you know, I think it would be pretty easy to make a case that Afghanistan has a bit of history with terrorism, so that’s why this case makes it — is so, so surprising that it’s threes girls from Afghanistan that have been allowed into the country.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, I wonder, do we even know yet why they were denied visas originally?

  • Alan Gomez:

    No, the State Department generally discuss individual cases and why it makes individual determinations.

    But when you think about the overall posture of this administration to seriously scrutinize any visas, any visa applications that are coming from countries with those ties to terrorism, it follows that trend of denying a lot of those visas from people coming from those countries.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, so this case raises some — plays into some larger confusions and that continuing controversy.

    I want to ask you about one other development in the visa world that came yesterday. The government announced they’re adding 15,000 new H-2B visas. Now, explain what’s going on there.

  • Alan Gomez:

    Yes.

    And that’s just another example of why it’s so difficult to try to figure out sort of what direction this administration is going when it comes to the legal immigration system in the United States.

    Just a couple of months ago, to give you some background, the president ordered a total review of the H-1B visa program. Those are visas dedicated to foreigners who are trained in science, technology, engineering, mathematics. They’re used by technology companies to bring in computer scientists and programmers.

    And the Trump administration ordered a review of the program because they believe that there is too much fraud and that these technology companies are abusing that program to just import cheaper labor.

    So, we had that as the background. They talk about American workers first. And that’s sort of the posture that they have been proceeding under.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That’s H-1. That’s the H-1. Now, this is H-2, which is for temporary workers.

  • Alan Gomez:

    Right.

    And then, all of a sudden, yesterday, we get this announcement that they are going to approve 15,000 additional new visas for H-2B visas, and these are dedicated to lower-skilled workers.

    Think about people who work in fisheries, in hotels, in construction, in resorts, and those are the kind of workers that they’re going to allow in.

    The argument from the Trump administration is that these companies, a lot of them were in very desperate need of the labor, that they couldn’t find American workers to do that job, so they needed to bring in these additional workers to do it.

    But, again, it sort of goes against what the administration has been arguing for all these months, that they are going to limit the immigration system to help American workers and to reduce the competition that they’re facing here in the country.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, ever evolving.

    Alan Gomez, USA Today, thanks very much.

  • Alan Gomez:

    Thank you.

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