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Members of Afghan robotics girls team chat with each others as they arrive to receive their visas from the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

(reuters_tickers)

By Akram Walizada and Mohammad Aziz

KABUL (Reuters) - A team of Afghan girls are on their way to compete in an academic robotics competition in the United States after American officials agreed to allow them to enter the country despite initially denying them visas.

"We were disappointed, and we were feeling bad, but now we are very happy that they have given us a chance to go," 14-year-old Fatemah Qaderyan said as she and five teammates arrived in the Afghan capital Kabul on Thursday. The girls are hoping to receive the documentation there that they need to travel to the United States.

The reversal reportedly came at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been embroiled in controversy over his efforts to restrict immigration from several Muslim-majority countries.

Afghanistan itself is not on the list, and Team Afghanistan's robot had already been allowed entry to the United States.

"We are so happy from the support of the Americans and Mr. Trump, and we thank them for providing us visas to allow us to travel and attend the competitions," Qaderyan said.

A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said he could not publicly comment on individual cases, but officials in Washington confirmed the girls had been granted an exemption, called a parole, that would allow them to travel.

"I look forward to welcoming this brilliant team of Afghan girls, and their competitors, to Washington DC next week!" Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, wrote in a statement on Facebook. "These girls represent our world's future scientists, engineers, and innovators!"

While officials did not comment on the reasons for initially denying the girls visas, the United States often denies visa requests from Afghans over fears that they will refuse to return home.

Members of the team said they see the competition as a chance to help improve conditions in Afghanistan, where women and girls often face significant limitations in public and private life.

"Afghanistan is a war-torn country where it is difficult for women to improve," said 15-year-old Lida Azizi. "But now this is a big chance for us to attend in the competitions and also it’s good for our country."

(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Reuters