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US grants visas to Afghan robotics team following public outcry

After initially being denied visas, six Afghan girls will now be allowed to attend a robotics contest, organizers have said. The team's plight sparked a backlash, eventually leading President Donald Trump to intervene.

Following two visa rejections, global outrage and an intervention from US President Donald Trump himself, a group of Afghan girls will now be allowed to show off their hard work in an international robotics competition later this week.

Competition organizers and US officials announced on Wednesday that the six Afghan girls will be able to participate in the contest, which takes place July 16-18.

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"I am most grateful to the US Government and its State Department for ensuring Afghanistan, as well as The Gambia, would be able to join us for this international competition this year," said the president of the First Global organization, Joe Sestak.

"All 163 teams from 157 countries have gained approval to the United States, including Iran, Sudan, and a team of Syrian refugees," said Sestak, a former US Navy Admiral and congressman. He also noted that teams from Yemen, Libya and Morocco will attend as well.

US authorities originally denied access to schoolchildren from several Muslim-majority nations who wanted to participate in the science competition, following the implementation of stricter visa policies under Trump.

But following a global outcry over the Afghan girls' case, Trump intervened and reportedly urged US authorities to reverse the decision, according to White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

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'We lost hope'

The initial rejections left the girls deeply disappointed. They made the 800-kilometer (500-mile) trek to the US embassy in Kabul twice after their first applications were denied.

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"When we heard that we were rejected we lost hope," said 14-year-old Sumaya Farooqi. "We applied again for the US visa and we were rejected again."

The team wanted to prove that students in the conflict-torn country could also construct a robot. 

After six months of hard work - often working seven days a week on the project - they constructed a ball sorting robot that can move objects to their correct places. 

Without the reversal, the team would have had to watch the contest via video link from their hometown in Herat, Afghanistan.

Charity First Global holds its annual robotics challenge in the hope of sparking an interest in science and technology. It's an Olympics-style competition, with one team from every country invited to take part.

A limited version of Trump's travel ban - temporarily barring visitors coming from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - recently took effect after the Supreme Court allowed it pending a full hearing in October.

In March, all African participants who were due to attend the African Global Economic and Development Summit in California had their visa requests denied, according to organizers. 

rs/ng   (AP, AFP)

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