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How I became captain of the winning all-girls Afghan robotics team

Updated 8:01 AM ET, Thu October 11, 2018

Editor's Note: Fatemah Qaderyan is the captain of Afghanistan's all-girl robotics team. She gave a talk last month at the Human Rights Foundation's Oslo Freedom Forum in New York about the importance of empowering Afghan girls and women with technology. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - I love asking questions. As a child, I questioned just about everything. Why was my country different than the ones I saw on television shows and in movies? Why was my gender an obstacle to me becoming a leader someday? Why was educating young girls seen as so threatening to the leaders of my country?

My mother would attempt to answer my questions. But in doing so, she would also tell me stories about a dark time in my country, a time when the Taliban required women to stay inside their homes, a time when ignorance and servitude were forced upon us. Hearing these stories, I realized that my own sisters were the victims of this regime. The world they knew left no room for knowledge or imagination.

Not long ago, the Taliban prevented all girls from going to school. Today, almost 40% of Afghan girls attend school. But due to poverty, lack of teachers and supplies and cultural prejudice, millions of girls still do not have access to education.

I am fortunate enough to be an exception -- to come from a family where I have always been encouraged to explore and to watch the occasional animated movie. When I was six years old, I saw "Robots," an animated film about the possibilities of robots. Inspired, I promised my mom that someday I would make her a robot that could help her with all her housework.

And I put my mind to making that promise a reality. Last year, I had a chance to apply for a spot on my high school's all-girl robotics team, which would travel internationally to participate in competitions.

Out of the 150 students who applied, only six were selected for the final round. I was one of these students and, eventually, I was named captain of the team.

I was so excited to compete on behalf of my country. But just before my team was supposed to travel to Washington, D.C. for our competition, our visas were denied. I did not know why and I twice travelled from my home in Herat to the US Embassy in Kabul to appeal the decision.

After failing both times, I decided that I needed to fight back -- and so I took to the media. My team's story gained attention and eventually millions of people around the world knew what was happening. In 2017, US President Donald Trump decided to intervene. Our small robotics team was granted visas to enter the United States just days before the start of the competition.

We returned to Afghanistan with a silver medal for our achievement, and we were proud to serve as a symbol of hope for Afghanistan after many long years of war. We helped bring attention to the limits placed on girls and women in my country, and we showed the world that, if given the chance, Afghan girls could do anything.

No one was prouder of my team's victory than my father. He was the one who encouraged me to join the team in the first place, and he never lost hope that we would win our battle. He always believed that his children would become symbols of pride for our country.

But one week after I returned to Afghanistan, while he was at our mosque for daily prayers, ISIS took my father away from me. Some neighbors blamed me for my father's death. They said that if I had not been on the robotics team, this might not have happened to him.

At first, I didn't think I could remain on the team because of this tragedy. But my mother stood up to everyone. She said, "Fatemah must continue on this route, even if only for her father, who is the reason she joined this team." And she was right.

Children and young adults make up more than half of Afghanistan's population. The ability of my country to change is in our hands. But convincing others of our ability to do so -- and with technology -- is not going to be easy.

Growing up in a war zone, few Afghan children have had the chance to turn their dreams into reality. But we have a chance now -- the Digital Citizen Fund, which provides digital literacy training to Afghan girls, is creating that opportunity. This organization is how I learned computer programming and where I first worked with robots, and it is the reason I believe in the power of imagination.

I used to tell people, "Night will not always rule over Afghanistan. A new day will come soon." My father reinforced that idea. And just as he never stopped believing in me, I will never stop believing in a brighter future for the next generation of girls in Afghanistan.


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