The robotics team of exiled Afghan girls makes a home in Qatar

One of the youngest members of Afghanistan’s pioneering all-girl robotics team wants the world to know that after the Taliban took over, women in her country are still fighting for their rights and thirsting for education.

The young woman, 19-year-old Afsana Ahmadi, also said she misses her dad terribly.

“When I left Afghanistan, that was the last time I saw him,” she said in a Zoom interview with NBC News to mark International Women’s Day.

Learn more about this story at “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT.

Ahmadi, who is originally from the western Afghan city of Herat, said her father accompanied her to Kabul last summer and cried when she was evacuated to Qatar, where most of the group is now based.

“He cried with me and said, ‘Dear Afsana, never ever despair and keep going,'” she said. “I really miss him.”

Known at home as the “robot girls,” Ahmadi is part of an all-female group that has become a symbol of Afghan progress by participating in competitions around the world where budding scientists show off their latest robotic creations.

Members of the Afghan all-girls robotics team with their robot on the practice floor at the 2017 FIRST Global Challenge in Washington, D.C.Paul J. Richards / AFP via Getty Images

The team gained notoriety in 2017 when the United States twice denied members visas required to compete in the country. Then-President Donald Trump stepped in and they were able to attend.

When the Taliban returned to power in 2021, most of the group fled to Qatar fearing the conservative Islamic regime would once again impose draconian rules that would ban women from attending school or working outside the home. The Taliban, who initially said they had modernized during their 20 years out of power, soon began making it impossible for women and girls to go to work and school.

The Taliban say they support women’s education and employment “within the boundaries of Sharia,” or Islamic law. Interpretation of Sharia varies widely, and some Afghans and experts accuse the fundamentalist Taliban of imposing archaic Taliban-specific tribal traditions on the rest of the country.

On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the United States, the European Union and dozens of other countries issued a statement saying, in part, that since the return of the Taliban, “Afghan women and girls have not had access to secondary education, to higher education. in public and political spaces and in employment opportunities”.

Ahmadi, who did not leave for Qatar until 2022, lived for almost a year under the rule of the Taliban, who were previously in power from 1996 to 2001.

“So it was kind of shocking news to me and I kind of don’t know what to do,” he said.

Her colleague Sadaf Hamidi, 19, who left for Qatar in 2021, said she had received horrifying reports from her family about how the Taliban had changed women’s lives.

“One of my sisters was a medical student, the other was a high school student,” Hamidy said. “But right now they have to stay at home and can’t continue their education. … This is heartbreaking for me and for them.”

Group leader Florence Pouya, 17, said they constantly think “about the other girls in Afghanistan, who can’t even go to school”. He said this motivates them to try harder.

“We’re not just the robotics team. we don’t just build the robot,” he said.

Raihana Sattari, from left, Marwa Shinwari and Heela Barakzai, members of an all-girls Afghan robotics team, assemble parts in the Qatari capital, Doha.
While not in Afghanistan, Raihana Sattari, Marwa Shinwari and Heela Barakzai are still chasing their dreams in Qatar’s capital, Doha.Karim Jaafar / AFP via Getty Images

Ahmadi said that while the “Afghan Dreamers” were making their mark on the international scene, word of their scientific exploits reached Herat as the Taliban made life more difficult for women.

“It was like a hope,” he said. “It was a light like inside you that pushed us not to give up in life. Keep going, it’s not the end point.”

Inspired by their example, Ahmadi was determined to join “this amazing group”, a younger generation of which was still operating in Herat. And after going through a series of interviews and tests, he made the team.

But as the Taliban tightened their grip, it became increasingly clear to Ahmadi that if she wanted to become a scientist, she would have to leave Afghanistan and say goodbye to everyone she knows and loves. And she would have to do it herself.

“No, I left the country alone,” he said. “Well, like the situation was difficult for the girls to leave the country, and it’s still difficult to leave the country, you know, without a person who can accompany them.”

For now, home is a compound in Qatar shared with other team members.

“I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity,” Ahmadi said. “At the same time, I wish that my friends and all my classmates also have this opportunity.”

Ahmadi said she has been in touch with family and friends and life in Afghanistan at the moment is “obviously difficult”.

But as part of the robotics team, Ahmadi said they were able to show the world that Afghan women are capable of “amazing” things.

“I can be a voice for my friends and I can do something from here that can help them,” she said.

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