January 29, 2018

Update to the Afghan Women’s Robotics Team

Afghan Robotics Team

By now it is known that an Afghan women’s robotics team, made up of a group of high school girls from Herat, Afghanistan, won a silver medal for courage in the FIRST Global Challenge in Washington, D.C. this past July, 2017.  This was after their visas to the United States were denied twice, even after the girls made two 500-mile round trips to Kabul to interview in person at the U.S. Embassy.  Only after a public display of support in the U.S. did the Administration allow the Afghan Women’s Robotic team to attend. In addition, since Afghanistan is still an active conflict area, the team waited months for their kit of wheels, gears, and radio controls to clear security. Meanwhile, their competitors were already working on their robots. By the time the materials arrived, the Afghans had only two weeks to assemble a working robot, but they did so successfully, getting a head start by using recycled materials, and even a Coca-Cola bottle.

The teenagers are sponsored in part by Roya Mahboob, an Afghan technology entrepreneur. Mahboob came on behalf of her company, Digital Citizen Fund, a women’s empowerment nonprofit.

In November, 2017, the team traveled to Estonia to compete in the Entrepeneur Challenge at Europe’s largest robotics festival, the Robotex festival. They faced off against 3700 competitors and 1600 robots. Not only did they build a robot that would solve a real world problem, they also designed marketing flyers, and presened a sales pitch to a team of judges.

The winning robot, presented by three members of the Afghan Women’s Robotic team, uses solar energy to work on small farms, doing tasks like seeding and cutting crops.

Next stop is another visit to the U.S. in May of this year to compete for investment money to start their own company.

Stay tuned.

Information for this post obtained from K.N. Smith, contributor to Forbes, Nov 29, 2017; Amanda Erickson from The Washington Post, July 4, 2017; Camila Domonoske, NPR, Nov 30, 2017.

Photos from Jurban

Arrival of the all-girls Afghan national team at Dulles Airport for the FIRST Global Challenge 2017, an international robotics competition for high school STEM students held in Washington.


January 15, 2018

Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day

Celebrating MLK Day rings a bit hollow this year, coming days after the White House openly insulted immigrants and the countries they come from—brown and black skinned immigrants to be precise. However, many Americans happen to think otherwise, including a bookshop owner in New York.

March 7, 2017

America’s Strength is Her Diversity

Jewish Muslim Fathers Travel Ban

Donald Trump’s executive order to ban travel to the US from countries that are majority Muslim, threatens our American diversity, has compelled me to re-visit “Little Women of Baghlan,” and explore the reasons why I wrote it.

I began the project by writing about a personal story—a young woman who joins the Peace Corps. And so by definition, it is a story about tolerance and acceptance. It is about sacrifice. Ultimately, it is about love.

But her story is also about a time in America when the best and brightest young Americans gave up two years of their lives to live in another country. They taught, established hospitals, and dug wells. And yet, their work paled in comparison to what they learned–that deep down we are all the same. We laugh and cry. We love. All of us want a safe home, an education for our children, and the freedom to practice our religion.

As we enter a new era in our nation’s history—one fueled by bigotry, fear, and ultimately, hate—her story is more important than ever.

My America is generous and welcoming. I refuse to allow myself or my country to be defined by racist, xenophobic policies that undermine our moral credibility.

March 5, 2016

Afghanistan National Cricket Team

Afghanistan Cricket Team

Squad (pictured above): Asghar Stanikzai (capt), Noor Ali Zadran, Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Usman Ghani, Mohammad Nabi, Karim Sadiq, Shafiqullah, Rashid Khan, Amir Hamza, Dawlat Zadran, Shapoor Zadran, Gulbadin Naib, Samiullah Shenwari, Najibullah Zadran, Hamid Hassan.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Finding good news in Afghanistan is not easy, but there are stories that defy the tragic and often hopeless living conditions the Afghan people endure.

The Afghan National Cricket Team is one of those stories–a tribute to the spirit and resilience of the Afghan people.

Afghanistan has lost only two of its last 13 matches, and has qualified to play in India, at the ICC World Twenty20 Cup. Afghanistan is currently ranked at 9th out of the 16 teams represented.

Afghanistan will face Hong Kong, Scotland and Zimbabwe in Group B of the first round of the World T20. If it tops that group, it will qualify for the Super 10 stage of the tournament and be clubbed with England, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies.

Before it kicks off its campaign against Scotland on March 8, Afghanistan is due to play two warm-up matches in Mohali — against Netherlands on March 4 and Oman on March 6.


February 26, 2016

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

The Taliban Shuffle

I never heard of Kim Barker until just a few days ago when I caught her interview on NPR. Who is Kim Barker?  She is a reporter at ProPublica and served as the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009. And now she has written an account of her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan in a book titled “The Taliban Shuffle.” According to New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani, Barker’s book  “…manages to be hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating, all at the same time.”

Barker’s experience working as a female reporter  is hauntingly similar to Jo’s experience as a female Peace Corps worker nearly 50 years ago. Barker speaks of the poverty, mistreatment of women, and general misery of the Afghan people–juxtaposed with the western lifestyle of American and European journalists; the parties, and the alcohol. We drank partly to “numb ourselves” against what we saw every day, she said.

As far back as 1968, Jo Carter also witnessed the plight of the Afghans, along with the foreshadowing of the Russian invasion of 1979. She comes across the body of a dead soldier, left to rot in the roadway, and the incident is captured in the book, “Little Women of Baghlan.”

Jo hardly remembered the rest of the ride to Puli-Khumri, or how they met up with a group of vaccinators stationed there. She only knew it had been a very disturbing experience, and yet, as they had a few drinks and something to eat with the Puli-Khumri Volunteers, the incident became daring and exciting—a story with overtones of international intrigue. They thrilled to the sensationalism of it all, and repeated the story again and again, each time with more braggadocio and swagger. A few more drinks, and they were making jokes and laughing.

Barker also speaks of the female journalists, and how they are considered a “third gender” among the Afghans, something akin to Jo’s experience.

“The peculiar gender distinction was something she (Jo) had grasped almost as soon as she arrived in Afghanistan. She traveled alone, with her head uncovered. Therefore, she didn’t fit the traditional perception of female. She certainly was not male. What was she then, but an entity somewhere in between? And so, out of necessity, the Afghans devised a convenient niche that placed Western women into a category of their own—a third gender—with the rights and privileges of Afghan men. As such, Jo and the other female Peace Corps Volunteers moved about freely in Afghan society.”

Above all, Kim Barker is impressed with the generosity and hospitality of the Afghan people. She alluded to the fact that the Afghans would invite her into their homes, and treat her like a long lost relative. I was happy to hear that has not changed–Jo shared countless meals and cups of tea with her students and families.

Lastly, I think both women fell in love with the country itself.  Jo’s first impression of Afghanistan was from the plane window:

The land mass beneath her appeared creased and folded: millions of tons of earth and rock that had been crushed and crumpled like so many pieces of discarded paper. The ridges were bleak and unadorned with vegetation; shades of brown deepened to a blue haze in the narrow valleys. Jo felt a shiver run up her spine, a thrill at being in the presence of the Hindu Kush.

Of course there are differences between Ms Barker and Jo Carter. One went with the intent of learning everything about Afghanistan, the power and politics that ruled the country, and reporting on the news without bias; the other went with instructions start a nursing school, and not become involved in politics.  The Volunteers were instructed to:

…make Afghanistan their home. They would shop at the local bazaars, eat the same food, and have the same necessities of daily life as the ordinary Afghan citizen. They were expected to become part of the community, not maintain an American lifestyle with imported goods and amenities.

A print version of Michiko Kakutani’s review appears on March 15, 2011, on page C1 of the New York Times edition with the headline:” Battle-Zone Absurdity and Adrenaline-Fueled Folly.”

Barkers’s book has been made into the movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” starring Tina Fey, due for release March 4, 2016.

To see Michiko Kakutani’s full review, click on the link

Battle-Zone Absurdity and Adrenaline-Fueled Folly

February 22, 2016

Afghans Skirt Strict Rules to Find Love on Social Media

Afghans fall in love on Social Media

I wonder if we all have a love/hate relationship with social media. Oh, we find out what our friends and family are up to, we get a great recipe, a good joke, and once in awhile a post will make us stop and think. On the other hand, it can be a massive waste of our time. “Only a couple of minutes,” we tell ourselves, and find to our chagrin that we have squandered an hour. We love it or hate it,  and yet it’s the first thing we check in the morning, and the last thing we check at night.

Social media in Afghanistan has a new twist, a free voice in a suppressed society. Maybe today I like social media. To see the full story, click on the link.


Afghan civil activist Hadi Sadiqi had long been using social media to share news, commentary and his own musings on politics when he got into a heated exchange with another member of his Facebook forum.

Sadiqi and Maleka Yawari took their argument offline, and soon their exchanges grew more personal, with articles and opinion pieces giving way to photographs, love letters — and eventually wedding vows.