Gambian schoolkids denied U.S. visas for robotics competition


A group of high-flying Gambian schoolchildren were denied visas to attend a robotics competition in the United States, they told journalists on Tuesday, following a similar rejection of an all-girls team from Afghanistan.

The group of five teenagers from the tiny West African nation were invited to attend the FIRST Global Challenge in Washington DC this month to show off their engineering skills in front of peers from 160 countries.

"It is going to be sad if we cannot be in the U.S. to exhibit the robots we built ourselves," said Fatoumata Ceesay, 17, describing the team dedicating "six to seven hours a day on building the robots" during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The competition is aimed at building interest and confidence in engineering and technology in schools worldwide. Africa has an acute shortage of qualified engineers, according to experts. Although the group's mentor has vowed to reapply for visas costing $170 a piece on their behalf, Ceesay said they could be forced to "ship the robots and follow the proceedings on Skype."

The U.S. embassy in Banjul did not respond to journalists calls for comment.

Forbes magazine reported last week that six girls from Herat, Afghanistan had faced a similar fate and would be blocked from attending the robot battle, despite two rounds of interviews for a one-week visa.

The U.S. authorities' decision to deny access to schoolchildren from Muslim-majority African and Asian nations from participating in the science competition follows several other high-profile examples of stricter visa policy since President Donald Trump took power. In March, every single African due to attend the African Global Economic and Development Summit, a trade conference in California, had their visa request rejected, according to organisers.

Meanwhile, a separate travel ban now explicitly targets visitors from six countries: Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, but Afghanistan and The Gambia are unaffected by the travel ban.

The co-ordinator of the Gambia Robotics Team, Mohtarr Darboe, told journalists they had not given up. "We are reapplying for U.S. visas tomorrow. The Gambian team now consists of five students and one mentor," he said.

The United States blocked travel visas for Gambian government officials in October 2016 when former president Yahya Jammeh was still in power in a dispute over The Gambia's refusal to take back illegal immigrants.    (AFP)

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