FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology
I have almost spent more years of my life involved in the FIRST Robotics program than not. I don’t do it for the robots. I do it for the people. In FIRST you’ll hear the most incredible stories, meet the most dedicated volunteers, and the most hardworking students. People don’t always get it at first. Yes, there is a competition aspect, but it’s watching competing teams help build, fix, support each other off the field that is the most amazing part. It’s seeing the impact of the students working year round to help other students access a STEM education. In this competition, everyone wins.
FIRST is a community. FIRST is a family. In Ontario this year, these girls, Team 7329: The Afghan Dreamers, were invited to compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition by FIRST Canada. Every year teams are given 6 weeks to build a robot to play a game. The Afghan Dreamers had 4 weeks to build theirs. The FIRST community in Ontario didn’t just play host; local teams and FIRST alumni mentored them every step of the way. The Ontario district is one of the most competitive arenas in the world. There are lots of really great teams. There are a handful of world champion teams. The Afghan Dreamers have earned their way through the circuit to the World Championship in Detroit just like all the other teams in Ontario.
I watched their reaction after they won their first match at competition a few weeks ago. They were elated. They were jumping up and down and hugging each other. They were here to win. To prove that girls CAN do it. To bring back what they learn here, back to other girls in Afghanistan. Little did they know then they were going to win the Rookie All Star award at the Ontario Championship – the most prestigious award given to a new team – and will compete for that award at World’s.
They have overcome incredible obstacles to get to where they are.
These girls have fought for their education. They made the news last year when they traveled hundreds of kilometres to the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan and twice denied visas to compete in the US. Through a last minute intervention they were granted visas and their story was even covered in The New York Times. I remember reading about it last summer and was so excited to hear that they were going to be hosted by my old team (also an all girls team). I jumped at the opportunity to meet them in February and was super, super excited to be volunteering at one of their events.
I know what it’s like to board a plane and not know what life is going to be like on the other side and not know the language. It’s hard. As a teenager, I couldn’t have done it. And to do it to pursue something people around you are saying you shouldn’t do? That robotics and math is for boys? To me that’s almost unthinkable. It is the polar opposite from the world I come from and that I was raised in.
According to the Human Rights Watch, two thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. In an extremely patriarchal society, girls don’t have as many schools to attend as boys. Some girls are not allowed to be taught by male teachers. There are bad people who harrass and physically attack girls on their way to school. But what people on both sides inherently understand is this: Education is a powerful tool. To arm girls with knowledge is to give them a future that is theirs.
Girls face extreme discrimination and extreme barriers to get an education. Gender equality is far from reality in Afghanistan and many other parts of the world.
Despite all this, the Afghan Dreamers continue to compete and inspire people all over the world. They have big aspirations to share their knowledge with girls back at home. But I have to say, with all the media coverage they almost seem larger than life. But they’re just girls. They just have the courage that most of us need to be reminded lies within us. You can’t just wait for things to happen to you, to hope that things get better. If you’re not satisfied with the status quo, you can change it.
And you know what? The Afghan Dreamers is a bit of a misnomer. They’re not just dreamers; They are doers. (But I guess I’ll concede that The Afghan Doers doesn’t have the same ring to it…)
RE: The featured image: Yes, they love watching Bloo perform all her tricks and Lida in particular loves feeding Bloo treats.
Read more about them here: