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Story of Afghan Girls' Team Just One of Many at Robotics Event

  • VOA Staff

Students from around the world — from Peru to Russia to Slovenia and from across Africa — meet during the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge, July 18, 2017, in Washington. The challenge is an international robotics event with teams from over 100 countries.

An international robotics competition in Washington was in its final day Tuesday, with teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations competing. The team getting the most attention at the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge was a squad of girls from Afghanistan who were twice rejected for U.S. visas before President Donald Trump intervened. But there are even more stories than there are teams. Here are a few:

Girl power

Sixty percent of the teams participating in the competition were founded, led or organized by women. Of the 830 teens participating, 209 were girls. And in addition to the Afghan squad, there were five other all-girl teams, from the United States, Ghana, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Vanuatu's nickname: the "SMART Sistas."

Team Afghanistan — from second from left, Kawsar Rashan, Lida Azizi, Somayeh Faruqi and Rodaba Noori — next to a member of Team Australia, at left, hug before their final round of competition at the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge, July 18, 2017, in Washington.
Team Afghanistan — from second from left, Kawsar Rashan, Lida Azizi, Somayeh Faruqi and Rodaba Noori — next to a member of Team Australia, at left, hug before their final round of competition at the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge, July 18, 2017, in Washington.

Samira Bader, 16, on the Jordanian team, said "it's very difficult for us because everyone thinks" building robots is "only for boys." She said her team wanted to prove that "girls can do it."

The three-girl U.S. team included sisters Colleen and Katie Johnson of Everett, Washington, and Sanjna Ravichandar of Plainsboro, New Jersey.

Colleen Johnson, 16, said her team looked forward "to a day when an all-girls team is going to be no more special than an all-boys team or a co-ed team, just when that's completely normal and accepted."

The team competing from Brunei was also all female, though a male member previously worked on the project.

An unusual alliance

The United States and Russia were on the same side Tuesday. During the fourth round of the competition, the U.S. team was paired with teams from Russia and Sudan to work as an alliance.

The robots all the teams in the competition created were designed with the same kit of parts and did the same task: pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposited the blue balls, which represented water, and the orange balls, which represented contaminants, into different locations. Each three-nation alliance competed head to head in 2½-minute games.

Both U.S. and Russian teams paid their counterparts compliments after their game Tuesday. Russian team member Aleksandr Iliasov said of the U.S. team: "They cooperate well." And U.S. team member Colleen Johnson called the Russian team's robot "very innovative," saying they had smartly used extra wheels and gears and zip ties to keep balls inside their robot.

Despite their good collaboration, U.S.-Russia-Sudan fell short, losing 40 to 20 to Zimbabwe, Moldova and Trinidad and Tobago.

Team Iran, in green, competes in the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge, July 18, 2017, in Washington.
Team Iran, in green, competes in the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge, July 18, 2017, in Washington.

A little help

The team from Iran got some help building their robot from American students. It turns out that the competition's kit of robot parts, including wheels, brackets, sprockets, gears, pulleys and belts, was not approved for shipment to Iran because of sanctions involving technology exports to the country. So the competition recruited a robotics team at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia, to help. Iran's team designed the robot, and about five Marshall students built it in the United States.

The team explained on its competition web page that "our friends in Washington made our ideas as a robot."

Because of the time difference between the countries, the three-member team and its mentor were sometimes up at midnight or 3 a.m. in Iran to talk to their collaborators.

Amin Dadkhah, 15, called working with the American students "a good and exciting experience for both of us." Kirianna Baker, one of the U.S. students who built the robot, agreed. "Having a team across the world with a fresh set of eyes is very valuable," she said.

Amar Kabour, center, and Mahir Alisawaui, right, both Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, are helped with their robot by their mentor, Osama Shadeh, who is also a Syrian refugee, during the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge, July 18, 20
Amar Kabour, center, and Mahir Alisawaui, right, both Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, are helped with their robot by their mentor, Osama Shadeh, who is also a Syrian refugee, during the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge, July 18, 20

A robot refugee

A group of three refugees from Syria competed as Team Refugee, also known as Team Hope. All three fled Syria to Lebanon three years ago because of violence in their country.

Mohamad Nabih Alkhateeb, Amar Kabour and Mahir Alisawaui named their robot "Robogee," a combination of the words "robot" and "refugee."

Alkhateeb, 17, and Kabour, 16, said they wanted to be robotics engineers, and Alisawui wanted to be a computer engineer. Kabour said it's important to the team to win, to "tell the world" refugees are "here and they can do it."

Alkhateeb also said that living as a refugee had been difficult, but he hoped to someday return home.

"I will go back after I have finished my education so I can rebuild Syria again," he said.

Eleven million people — half the Syrian population — have been forced from their homes by the civil war.

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