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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Afghan girls robotics team arrives in Washington after Trump's intervention

Awaiting them at Dulles International Airport were a US special envoy and Afghan ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, who described it as a rare moment of celebration for his beleaguered nation

The Afghan girls robotics team take selfies at Herat International Airport on July 13, 2017 as they wait for their flight to Washington DC. President Trump personally intervened  after their US visas were twice denied.  Hoshang Hashimi / AFP
The Afghan girls robotics team take selfies at Herat International Airport on July 13, 2017 as they wait for their flight to Washington DC. President Trump personally intervened after their US visas were twice denied. Hoshang Hashimi / AFP

After being twice rejected for US visas, an all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan finally arrived in Washington early on Saturday after an extraordinary, last-minute intervention by President Donald Trump.

The six-girl team and their chaperone completed the journey from their hometown of Herat, Afghanistan just after midnight and will now enter their ball-sorting robot in the three-day high school competition starting on Sunday in the American capital. Awaiting them at the gate at Washington Dulles International Airport were a US special envoy and Afghan ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, who described it as a rare moment of celebration for his beleaguered nation.

"Seventeen years ago, this would not have been possible at all," Mr Mohib said. "They represent our aspirations and resilience despite having been brought up in a perpetual conflict. These girls will be proving to the world and the nation that nothing will prevent us from being an equal and active member of the international community."

In the short time since their visa dilemma drew global attention, the girls' case has become a flashpoint in the debate on Mr Trump's efforts to tighten entrance to the US, including from six Muslim-majority countries. Afghanistan is not included in Mr Trump's temporary travel ban, but critics have said the ban represents a broader effort to clamp down on Muslims entering the United States.

The girls' story has also renewed the focus on the longer-term plans for aiding Afghanistan's future, as the Trump administration prepares a new military strategy that will include sending more troops to the country where the US has been fighting since 2001. Defence secretary Jim Mattis said the strategy was moving forward but "not finalised yet."

President Trump's personal intervention earlier in the week using a rare "parole" mechanism to sidestep the visa system ended a dramatic saga in which the team twice travelled from their home in western Afghanistan through largely Taliban-controlled territory to Kabul, where their visa applications were denied twice.

The US authorities have given no reason for rejecting the girls' visa applications, citing confidentiality. But Mr Mohib said that based on discussions with US officials, it appears the girls were rebuffed due to concerns about whether they would return to Afghanistan. The same fate has befallen many Afghans seeking entry to the US in recent years as continuing violence and economic challenges lead many to seek asylum in America, or to travel through the US to Canada to try to resettle there.

As their case gained attention, Mr Trump intervened by asking National Security Council officials to find a way for them to travel, officials said. Ultimately the state department, which adjudicates visa applications, asked the homeland security department to let them in on "parole," a temporary status used only in exceptional circumstances to allow in someone who is otherwise ineligible to enter the country. The parole measure was granted after determining that it constituted a "significant public benefit."

Ambassador Alice Wells, the acting US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was at the airport to meet the girls, downplayed concerns that they might use the parole to stay in the US or go to Canada. She said they were proud to represent Afghanistan and "proud to return to be role models to others around them."

Competing against entrants from more than 150 countries, the Afghan team will present a robot they devised that can recognise blue and orange and sort balls into correct locations. They will also be feted at a hastily-arranged reception at the embassy of Afghanistan attended by supporters who had petitioned the US to let them in.

Under Taliban rule — which ostensibly ended in 2001 — girls were denied schooling. Ms Wells said that since 2002, the number of Afghan children attending school has increased from about 900,000 — virtually all boys — to 9 million today, of which 40 per cent are girls.

"We're looking to ensure that Afghanistan continues its trajectory to stabilising politically and economically," Ms Wells said. "It's young women like these that are going to be the future of Afghanistan."