DOHA, Qatar — They are known as Afghanistan’s “robot girls.”
The 10 high schoolers from Afghanistan’s western city of Herat are members of a team that has made international headlines for several years for its work developing and building robots.
The team became a symbol of progress in modern Afghanistan, taking part in competitions around the world.
But with the Taliban now in power in Afghanistan, the girls have fled to Qatar in fear of the militant group’s rule.
The previous Taliban regime’s strict and austere interpretation of Islam largely erased women from public life, barring them from attending school or working outside the home.
Although the Taliban promised to respect women’s rights as they took control of Afghanistan last week, many were skeptical. Girls like Somaya Faruqi, the captain of the robotics team, and nine more members of her team joined the thousands who have decided to flee the country.
They were flown out of Kabul to Doha with the assistance of the Qatari government last Tuesday.
Sitting in a housing compound where they now reside and wearing a beige headscarf, Somaya told NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel that she fled to Qatar for the chance to continue her education and robotics work.
“Nothing can stop us. We continue our way,” the 18-year-old said.
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Somaya said fixing things makes her feel free and powerful and taking part in international competitions has given her an opportunity to show the world what Afghan girls can do, and that Afghanistan is not just about never-ending wars.
“If there was an opportunity for every young boy or girl in Afghanistan, they could do anything they want,” she said.
Even as refugees, the team is still planning to enter a robotics competition in September. At the moment, it is working on a 5-foot-tall robot that uses ultraviolet light to remotely sweep rooms and destroy viruses.
Love of technology started early for Ayda Haydarpour, 17, the chief programmer on the team. She got a Super Mario video game when she was 7, and decided right away she wanted to know how it worked. She said she hopes to become a software engineer and work for herself someday.
“I’d really love to build my company and be the boss of that company,” she said.
It’s for the sake of those dreams that Ayda said she had to flee to Qatar. But the pain of leaving her homeland is still raw.
The girls came to Doha without their families. Some of their teachers, mentors and even team members are still in Afghanistan. Somaya broke down in tears when asked how difficult it was for her to leave her loved ones behind.
“We are going to go back to Afghanistan again,” Ayda said, vowing to return — however long it takes.
“We will go to Afghanistan again, and build Afghanistan and just change the future of Afghanistan,” she added.