By Aaron Mak
The Afghan girls weren’t the only team to struggle to get to the U.S.
Over the past month, international media have been captivated by the story of a team of six teenage girls from Afghanistan who finally gained entry into the United States for a competition after their visa applications were twice denied.
Politico reported on July 12 that Trump prompted the State Department to allow the team into the country. The girls arrived Saturday night in Washington, where they joined 162 other high school–age teams for the FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition from Sunday to Tuesday.
Trump’s supporters and skeptics alike have applauded the president for his intervention, and his daughter Ivanka helped kick off the last day of the competition to celebrate women in STEM. Some have argued that the president’s small act of mercy does not excuse the cruelty of the travel ban he instituted.
Afghanistan is not one of the six countries covered by the ban. However, the travel ban was a significant stumbling block for the team from Libya. Because of challenges presented by the ban, the Tech Impact team was only able to send two boys, 18-year-old Anis Jorny and 17-year-old Oumer Jehad, to the tournament.
The three other team members, along with their adult mentor, were forced to stay behind in Tripoli, the nation’s capital. They’ve been cheering from a distance by watching a livestream of the games, which involve robots competing to complete tasks like collecting small plastic balls on a rectangular playing field.
The team’s mentor and founder, Kusai Fteita, said over Skype, “After four months of hard work, it’s really tough for [the other teammates and me] to just watch this on a screen.”
Libya is in the throes of a sovereignty struggle between several militant factions. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, which toppled the reign of Qaddafi, no governing body has been able to step in and ensure stability. ISIS militants took advantage of the disarray and established a stronghold in Sirte, a coastal city, in 2015. Libyan forces just recently retook the city in December. Tripoli, where the team is based, is roughly 280 miles away.
According to the members of Tech Impact, the ban didn’t just make travel nearly impossible—it was also a perpetual obstacle in acquiring funding for the team. Although FIRST will provide robot kits, flight tickets, and accommodations in Washington to those in need, it is up to the teams to pay for their own visa applications.
The cost of a visa application is $160 per person, so it would cost almost $1,000 for the five-student team and their mentor. Furthermore, Fteita notes, rapid inflation due to conflict in Libya made it particularly difficult for them to find the money.
“We wanted every nation to have some skin in the game,” said Joe Sestak, president of FIRST. Teams are usually able to make sponsorship agreements with schools or local businesses that will donate the necessary supplies and money. However, Fteita struggled to convince any businesses in Libya to sponsor the team, largely because of Trump’s travel ban.
“[The businesses] told me, ‘Because of the Trump ban, you will not get the visas, so why should I give you the money?’ ” Fteita recalled. Besides visa fees, sponsors often provide a space to meet and practice, uniforms and banners for the competition, and miscellaneous resources like a stable internet connection for research.
Without donors, the team had to improvise. Through a friend, Fteita was able to find them a meeting place in the cramped side room of a computer shop. The team has been toiling since April to build their robot amid instability in the country.
Twice they were forced to stop practice to avoid gunfire from nearby skirmishes. The armed conflict has also crippled Libya’s electrical grid, so the shop would often abruptly lose power for up to five hours at a time, leaving them unable to program the robot’s software.
And lack of air conditioning during power outages made working in the shop unbearable, as temperatures in Libya can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. But the team developed a system. “[During power outages] we work on the [robot’s] structure and when the electricity returns, we work on the software,” Mohammed Zeid, one of the team members, messaged me over Facebook from Tripoli.
They worked long shifts: 10 hours a week in the months leading up to the competition, and five hours a day in the two weeks right before. Some team members had to walk for 45 minutes in the blistering Libyan heat to travel to the computer shop while others took hourlong bus rides.
Shortly before the competition, the team was finally able to find a sponsor willing to take a chance on paying for the visa fees. Yet the sponsor would only pay for the people who had a good shot at getting an application approved under the travel ban.
The team decided that Jorny and Jehad were the best candidates, since they had applied successfully for visas the year before the ban was in effect in order to attend exchange programs in the U.S. They boarded a flight to Tunisia to apply at the U.S. embassy (the U.S. does not have an embassy in Libya) and came straight to the competition in D.C. after getting visa approval.
The coach and their remaining three teammates—17-year-old Zeid, 14-year-old Abdularahman Abu Spiha, and 17-year-old Yaseen Mohamed—were dejected. (Yaseen Mohamed had exams during the competition, so it is unclear whether he would have been able to attend anyway.)
When asked about his reaction to learning that he wouldn’t be able to go to the competition, Zeid messaged, “Shock! Disappointment! Bad! Frustration! But I always try to remember that I worked for Libya and to improve my country.”
On Monday, as the first day of games came to an end in Washington, Jehad and Jorny sat slumped in the corner of the robot repair pit bleary-eyed and overwhelmed. After winning one match and losing another, they had plans to modify their robot, a small metal vehicle that resembles a steampunk wheat combine. A small Libyan flag is posted on the front-right corner of the machine. “Not having our mentor here is hard. He usually helps us brainstorm,” Jehad said. “Also Mohammed [Zeid] has more experience with mechanics so it’s hard to make the changes without him.” Jehad and Jorny had to consult with their mentor and teammates back home through a Facebook chat in order to make the necessary tune-ups for their four upcoming matches the next day.
When asked about the Libyan team’s particular challenges, FIRST president Sestak said, “We thought there was a fair opportunity for them to [raise funds]. But they were unable to raise funds from sponsors. I was not privy to the reasons, but sponsors were not supporting them already.” He noted that the four teams representing other countries affected by the travel ban —Sudan, Iran, Yemen, and a team of Syrian refugees—were nevertheless able to find money for the visa fees. (Somalia was unable to form a team.)
Though teams from other countries affected by the travel ban were indeed able to get their visas, many had similar difficulties finding sponsors and had to pay the fees themselves. The team from Iran also ran into skepticism from potential donors concerning their ability to enter the country under the ban, so they paid for the visa application fees out of pocket.
Families of the team members from Sudan paid the fees after initial problems finding sponsors. The mentor for the team of Syrian refugees dipped into his own teaching salary to afford the visas for him and his students, and the students from Yemen received the funds from their local gifted students program.
In addition, the team from Gambia, though not technically impacted by the travel ban, initially had its visas denied. The State Department reversed its decision shorty before the competition.
Team Impact ended up winning just one out of its six matches. The result wasn’t what the team members had hoped, but now they have their eyes set on the 2018 competition in Mexico City. As the two packed up their robot after the closing ceremonies, Jehad told me, “Next year Libya is going to do great. I hope the whole team will be able to make it.” Fortunately for them, Mexico doesn’t have a travel ban.
Photo: A member of Libya’s Team Impact works on his team’s robot during the first day of the FIRST Global Challenge on Monday at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture.
Aaron Mak – intern at Slate. Former intern at journal sentinel and politico.