Thursday, August 26, 2021

Afghani Robotics Team

Apparently my identity as a female robotics coach is something to remember in the needlework field! As the stories of the Afghan Robotics Team, that had been lifted up as the ultimate symbol of female empowerment in Afghanistan, began to make newspapers during the last two weeks during the collapse and airlift, my inbox started filling up from stitchers.

It is heartwarming that everyone cares and I wholeheartedly applaud that.  Some of you know that our own family was deeply affected by the collapse and evaluation in Saigon, which parallels this so closely.  So the Afghan situation has been something we have been following as well.  My husband was 10 when they had to make a secret and harrowing trip to the airport which was bombed overnight as they huddled under tin roof sheets in fox holes.  Then another trip to get to the embassy grounds and the masses coming over the walls.  My father-in-law was a translator and employee for the American embassy, and so had papers but the chaos of the situation had them holding the kids back as it was so easy to loose them.  They only made it on one of the last helicopters after he astutely realized the Americans were going to leave and abandon them when he heard a phrase in the room 'we will come back' by the attaché who had been with them there - he yelled and pushed ahead with his paper and they were rushed up the ladder onto a departing chinook, the rising gangway trapping my mother-in-laws foot which she almost lost - it was lifting as they jumped on.  While they were in the air, the ambassador left; ending the evacuation and the hopes of those left on the ground.  

I have to admit that I don't personally know the Afghan FTC team.  They are working in our division, but in a different, newer global competition that allows for a less expensive set of parts/competition set to encourage countries that can't afford to have the bulky $550 competition set sent over seas (it is usually 100 or more pounds of stuff in about 4 huge boxes).  That limited international teams to only about 20% of the total and so this new modified competition was started.  They participated in the first incarnations of  it and so we have never crossed paths.  I also can't get information about their location or where they might be finally settled (even they don't know that).  Understandably, the FIRST organization has to be super, super careful about letting out information on their teams and the children as there are unfortunately predatory people out there.  So even if you contacted them and said that you knew me and that I am the coach of The Brainstormers 8644 in Lexington, they would never in one million years give you my email address.  This is an issue we deal with all the time in the logistics of competition.  So I know absolutely that none of us would be given contact info for the Afghan girls or their coach, who I understand was also trying to emigrate.  

I also don't know any more than you do from the newspaper articles, sadly, even though I have been in contact with people at FIRST headquarters during the last few weeks on other topics.  Of course the girls have come up and as of yet there isn't more knowledge to be had or coordinated support yet as they don't know anything either.  I am sure when they do know and can coordinate something - I will find out.  

Their particular situation may be very perilous.  Some are minors and there are no reports on if their families were allowed out.  Others are just barely adults but again, in a society like Afghanistan, they will have a challenge in resettling without the support of family if they left alone.  Because they did not work for the Allies, their rights to resettle and gain visas to get to the US is in doubt.  I know that one group landed in the middle east and another in Mexico.  So what country will decide to allow them to resettle as refugees is unknown.  You can help by calling your congressmen/women and advocating for their resettlement in the USA, as we were the ones that put them in such danger that they needed to leave.  If you aren't aware, they were the poster-children for women's progress in US occupied Afghanistan.  Literally.  They were painted on the walls of the US embassy in Kabul.  The wall of course has been defaced already and you can imagine how cells of ISIS or Taliban would be happy to hurt them as a symbol, so I don't think where they end up will be plastered on the pages of the newspapers for a long time.  I certainly hope for their safety it isn't; especially as they may or may not have support family with them.

The wall of the American Embassy.  This painting effectively was a death warrent 

I very much encourage everyone reading this and interested in their plight to take that feeling and direct it towards helping every Afghan family that arrives here.  There will need to be sponsors who will commit to providing a job and housing.  Often this is an organization like a resettlement organization, a church, a hospital, manufacturing facility, etc.  The resettlement organizations will help pair up families with sponsors depending on the skills and language skills of the families.  Perhaps you can suggest to your church or you are involved in a company who might have jobs and you might investigate how to become a sponsor to see if it is a good match.  Once a family comes, they need so much.  They need things to set up housekeeping, getting their kids registered for school, finding and setting up services, navigating getting licenses, language classes, food shopping, banking, and on and on.  It is likely that the fathers will have English language skills but that the mothers and maybe children won't.  Being a refugee as a woman is unbelievably isolating and they are responsible for so much that they are unfamiliar with.  Anything you can do to help her be less isolated is such a help.  

They have left with nothing.  NOTHING.  My family has a grand total of five objects they left with.  Only a few pairs of clothes that they wore on top of each other as they had to abandon suitcases while moving between places trying to get onto helicopters.  Humans vs cargo.  If you want to understand the experience of a refugee, my husband was interviewed for the Library of Congress's Story Core oral history project about his first days in the United States.  You can listen to our son interview him.  It is an eye opening discussion from the perspective of a child trying to become American in a new land with many things that were unfamiliar.  Things you wouldn't have considered!  After spending months in Wake Island being processed, my family ended up in a camp in Pennsylvania and then getting sponsors to move them to La Crosse, Wisconsin.  I am not sure if the story of his first Christmas gift is in the interview, but the sponsors gave them two big boxes for the kids.  They were super excited - imaging TOYS.  Instead they were comforters for the cold winter.  Talk about a disappointed boy who was imaging some sort of truck toy.  As a note, he still has that comforter and still was sleeping under it during graduate school when I pointed out that it was falling apart and took it and make a male-styled quilt to cover it.  It is, as of this morning, on the end of our bed - being the preferred weight for summer sleeping.  A twin cover.  After 28 years of marriage, I am ready to cover it again with a very fancy quilt.  Each layer of this piece of textile is a document of his immigrant experience in the US.  

So think about both the need and the dreams of the Afghan refugees.  :-)  Also realize that the people who are willing to leave everything they have and family to get to another country are almost always the educated class of their country.  It is extremely humiliating to resettle.  They would have been the most respected university professors, engineers, doctors, lawyers, language specialists, officers, etc.  The Taliban suddenly realized this fact a few days ago and are trying to prevent people from reaching the airport as they will be left with no trained professionals to run the country's infrastructure with (their own damn fault!).  My father-in-law was a graduate trained mathematician and his final profession in the US was machinist, which took him years to get to.  He was proudest when an engineer would come down to the loud, dirty area he worked in to ask for his help with a math problem, but he came home with his hands dirty every day.  My mother-in-law was a surgical nurse.  The highest job she was ever allowed to do in the US was washing and sanitizing hospital equipment.  They had worked their way up to the elite in Vietnam, both came from very poor backgrounds, so this was highly unusual.  These are the types of people who realize their children will have no future and are willing to take the risk - to walk away from their lives and start over again.  RESPECT the Afghan refugees.  Think about if tomorrow things were to go south in the US, would you walk away?  (I have to admit that certain aspects of the last four years had my husband and I putting effort into that thought experiment).  They have evaluated not only their risk of being killed but the risk their children won't have a future and chosen the future for them, understanding that means supreme sacrifice on their part.  How can we best use the skills that these refugees have?  They will encounter a myriad of restrictive trade laws and certifications that they will not be able to get papers to satisfy.  Their children will become entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, etc.  How can you support them in getting to those goals?  Hopefully there will be a few more Afghani robot teams, but maybe located in Iowa or Michigan!  

So please turn your sympathy for the Afghani girls robotics team into action for all their country men and women who are suddenly adrift like they are.  I will let you know if I hear anything specific we can do for them, but there will be around 100,000 of them here just as needful.  Remember that for 20 years they extended a hand of friendship and aid to our sons and daughters in their land.  It is time for us to do the same to them.  I know all too well how extending a hand to others to bring children into my family has been in many ways the highlight of my life.  Their friendship and hard work will be so enriching to you and our country.  

Listing of the State Refugee Agencies where you can find contacts that you can use to help out


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this. I have often wondered what it must be like. I will watch for ways I can help these unfortunate people. I want success for these people.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this post. The reality of what is happening is beyond comprehension.

  3. You had me for a few paragraphs......lost me at the last four years when our country was great, unemployment low, the stock market high and respect in the world
    What I would not trade today for those great years when we had leadership in the White House that loved this county and the American people.

  4. I didn't know you were a Robotics coach. My Son was in Robotics and I was not a coach but I was more of a "go-fer." I made the hotel reservations, helped plan the food, ran to Home Depot, helped load and unload the bus. It was a fun time and was fascinating in many ways. I've been following the story of the Afghan team team, hoping they were safe. I tried stitching at competitions but invariably I'd get distracted and make a mistake so I had to quit. Small world.

  5. Wonderful post, Tricia. Poignant. Important. Thought-provoking.