In an exclusive interview with a member of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team who fled the country in the summer, Byline Times can reveal how an inspiring new project that will help Afghan girls achieve their dreams

“My dream is to take the hands of girls still in Afghanistan and help them access that most basic of rights – education,” says Saghar. “If we can help even one girl, then we need to go for it”.

When the Taliban started to advance across Afghanistan in 2021, 17-year-old Saghar knew she would soon have to leave her country. The teenager was part of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team – an international sensation that attended the World Summit AI in Amsterdam and competed in AI contests around the world, flying the flag for girls’ education and girls in STEM. 

But for the incoming regime, Saghar’s incredible success was not something to celebrate. The Taliban believes that girls should be denied the right to education. Since they took over Afghanistan in August, they have banned girls from attending secondary school. Families of girls like Saghar – families who encouraged their daughters to go after their dreams – face threats, intimidation and even real life violence. 

“The situation is catastrophic for women and girls,” said Sarah Porter, CEO and Founder of InspiredMinds – a global community of 200,000 of the world’s leading scientists, technologists and academics – and the InspiredMinds Foundation to support girls in STEM in emerging democracies. “Girls like Saghar grew up going to high school in Afghanistan. To have that right taken away is such a cruel blow”.

With the help of the InspiredMinds Foundation, Saghar and her fellow Girls Robotic teammates fled Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover was complete – travelling first to Pakistan, then to Mexico City and finally to Europe. She is separated from her family, although they were thankfully able to leave Kabul during the evacuation in August with the help of the InspiredMinds community.

The Afghan girls Robotics Team arrive to safety. Photo: InspiredMinds

It’s not easy being a teenage girl alone in a new country. But Saghar’s determination and vision to build a better future for Afghan girls is unshakeable. 

That determination is helping her to launch a project with the InspiredMinds Foundation that will offer scholarships to Afghan girls to study a foundation course in STEM subjects. “We want to give girls the opportunity to study and have the basic right that everyone should have, the right to education,” she explained. “The situation right now is not good for every girl in Afghanistan who is dreaming of their future. I am dreaming to do this – to have this ability to help other girls in Afghanistan”.

To get the project – the details of which Saghar has exclusively shared with Byline Times – off the ground, she and InspiredMinds are hoping that elite educational institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, Yale and many more will support her ambition by reserving places for Afghan girls to come and study STEM at their campuses. “We need the international community to hold out a helping hand, too,” she says. 

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‘We Need Help To Achieve What We Always Dreamed’

Robotics and AI have fascinated Saghar since she was a little girl, playing on her brother’s computer. She first discovered her love of computer science when she realised she could draw and paint pictures on a desktop programme much more easily than with pen and paper. 

“I was always really curious about how technology works,” Saghar told Byline Times. Her interest was encouraged by her family and her teachers, and she joined up with other girls who demonstrated a talent for computers and maths to form the Afghan Girls Robotics Team. 

“My family has always been very supportive,” Saghar explained. “I am so proud of them and I am so happy they have given me this chance even when it caused trouble from the regime”.

Because of the girls’ high profile, it quickly became apparent that it was too dangerous for them to remain in Afghanistan once it was controlled by an oppressive regime. “They do not have a good perspective of girls travelling, or going to school,” said Saghar. “Our families were worried for us.”

The journey to safety was not easy. Saghar had to leave her family, her friends and her country behind. “Because of the high profile we had in Afghanistan, our families were in danger as well,” she explained. “The perspective is that if you are a woman doing something that is against the regime’s laws, then they will punish the father or the brother. 

Chaotic scenes as families fled Afghanistan in summer 2021. Photo: InspiredMinds

“Leaving my home, my family, my friends and all my loved ones was a very hard experience, being only 17-years-old,” Saghar told Byline Times. “But that is why I want to stand for our friends, for the thousands of other girls in Afghanistan who have been through this situation, to help them do the things they dream of doing. That is the thing that is healing my heart”.

Saghar also takes strength from those like InspiredMinds Foundation which are supporting her ambition to set up a fund that will provide scholarships to Afghan girls to study. “The kindness that people bring to you can heal your heart too,” she said. “When you see people supporting you with what you dream of doing, that can heal the challenges you have been through”.


An Ongoing Crisis

Today, Saghar is doing an internship at an artificial intelligence firm, and hopes to secure a place to study computer science at an elite university. She told Byline Times how when people realise she is from Afghanistan, they can be surprised she is studying robotics. 

“But it’s not a surprise,” she insists. “Every girl in Afghanistan has dreams and talent. Girls in Afghanistan have power. The difference is whether opportunities are given to every girl in Afghanistan”. Her scholarship fund, she hopes, will deliver those opportunities.

“Afghanistan is now facing a grave humanitarian crisis with economic collapse, famine and Taliban violence against women and girls, their families, religious minorities and LGBTIQ people,” Porter told Byline Times. 

The UK Government evacuated 15,000 people – including British citizens – during Operation Pitting in August, and has pledged to resettle 20,000 more Afghan refugees in the coming years. 

Porter is concerned however, that these efforts don’t go far enough. “We need to see more international coordination,” she explained. “An international refugee coalition could mean more people are able to reach safety. We obviously want to see more girls in educational institutions, but the first thing that needs to happen is coordination and safeguarding on resettlement programmes”.

“I have bore witness to both the very best and the very worst of human nature throughout this process,” Porter added. The InspiredMinds community has acted towards the girls with “collaboration and goodwill,” she explained. But unfortunately, some individuals have chosen instead to show “an immoral and repugnant streak of exploitation surrounding these girls”.

Saghar doesn’t know when she will be reunited with her family. She misses her home. “I have spent my whole life in Afghanistan, 17 years of my life,” she told Byline Times. “I can never forget the memories, the friends, and every single day I spent in my country”. 

The threats she and her family endured when in Afghanistan have followed them across borders, but her strength and determination remain undiminished. So does her hope for Afghanistan. “I believe every person has hope for their country,” she explained. “The only difference for us is this situation that is currently in Afghanistan”.

Her hope also lies in her dream of funding scholarships and her aim to hold out her hand to girls across the world and support them to follow their dreams of an education. “I, as a girl in Afghanistan, was doing robotics and going for what I was dreaming,” she said. “That was my goal and I faced many challenges. I hope that the future generations in Afghanistan don’t face these challenges, and that education becomes a very basic right for people in Afghanistan, as it is for any other person around the world”.

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