Somaya Faruqi watched her father fix cars in the motor repair shop he owns in Herat, western Afghanistan, as a toddler.
“His work inspired me to pursue a career in mechanics and engineering,” says Somaya. “I am the eldest of four children, and despite being the only girl, I used to help him out in the shop after school, and I learned how things work in a fundamental sense, but I always wanted to learn more and have access to more knowledge in this area.”
The musty old store is crammed with vintage tools and salvaged car parts. “When I was younger, I used only to fix car radios,” Somaya explains, “but now I also help my father with big jobs.”
Somaya, now 18, is the Afghan Girls Robotics Team leader, also known as the “Afghan Dreamers,” a moniker they coined for themselves. The team’s five girls range from 14 to 18 and attend various high schools in Herat. They meet every day after school for an hour and a half to learn and practice programming and robotics.
“When I work in engineering, I feel so proud of myself because there aren’t many girls in this field in Afghanistan, and it can be a complex area, but I’m good at it, so I feel confident building and creating things,” Somaya says.
“There are many people in our community and throughout Afghanistan who believe that only boys should be mechanics, but I’m not sure why because girls can be mechanics as well. They need their culture to believe in them and their family to support them, and they will prove it. It was always a goal of mine to demonstrate this.”
Somaya’s mother was forced to drop out of school when she was ten years old. It was 1996, and the Taliban had taken power and prohibited girls from attending school. “I think this is why she supports me so much because she sees that I’m doing something she never got to do,” Somaya says. “Now she tells me how much she admires me.” Creating and constructing a ventilator
Somaya and her team first made headlines in 2017 when, despite demonstrating extraordinary robotics creativity, they were denied visas to the United States to compete in a robotics tournament. (After their story gained international attention and the attention of some US politicians, then-US President Donald Trump gave them visas.)
Then, in March 2020, Abdul Qayum Rahimi, the then-governor of Herat, issued a design challenge after doctors informed him of the region’s scarcity of ventilators, which had the highest number of coronavirus cases in the country.
The Afghan Dreamers were one of six teams approached (and the only all-girls team) to design a low-cost ventilator to aid in the treatment of COVID-19 patients.
Somaya describes how the team searched online for open-source design ventilators and came across the MIT E-Vent, a low-cost, low-tech ventilator design issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. The girls spent months working around their classes to create an emergency ventilator prototype based on this design.
Components for the device were challenging to come by, but they persevered and made do with what they had. “We had never worked on a ventilator or any other medical device before. Somaya adds, “It was new.”
“Our biggest challenge at the time was that we didn’t have the facilities to build some of the parts in, so my father would drive us to a workshop 20 minutes outside of town where we would work on the ventilator, but we didn’t have access to a lot of resources and materials that we needed to build a ventilator, so we had to build the prototype out of spare parts from old Toyota Corollas.”
The team members have continued to refine their design in response to input from physicians and the Ministry of Public Health.
“We are attempting to train the machine to detect a patient’s breathing pattern and adjust the amount of air they receive accordingly. We had to wait for the pressure sensors that are critical to the ventilators for this,” says Somaya, explaining that the team requires two parts for the ventilator to do this: a “pressure transducer” – a sensor that converts pressure measurements from the breath into electrical signals – and a microprocessor, neither of which they can source locally or ship into Afghanistan.
Last December, Nizar Ahmad Ghoryani, Minister of Industry and Commerce, donated $10,000 to the team and acquired land to construct a factory where the ventilators will be manufactured in the near future.
“These girls shone a light on the significance of girls’ education. And they elevated Afghanistan to the world stage – for all the right reasons,” said Mustapha Ben Messaoud, an acting representative for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Somaya believes that female role models are essential for girls to look up to and that one woman, in particular, has inspired her. Roya Mahboob is an Afghan tech entrepreneur and businesswoman who has been a supporter of the Afghan Dreamers since their inception and is always available by phone for Somaya.
The adolescent says seeing Roya, another Afghan woman from Herat, succeed in technology tells her what she is capable of.
“Technology and engineering are so new to Afghan girls, and we don’t have enough information about it… I should share my experience with other girls, just as Roya did with me. Roya always encouraged me not to give up on my dreams, to keep going because it is not only for me but also for the Afghan women and girls who follow.”
Roya Mahboob recalls discovering computers and the opportunities they provided for the first time.
“In late 2003/early 2004, my family had just returned to Herat in Afghanistan from Iran,” she recalls. “At the time, I was 15 years old, and there were no computers and only one old library with a few old books, and most of the information in them was out of date.”
Then she ran across a computer shop in Herat one day.
“I walked in, and before I could sit down, the owner told me to leave, saying it was a place for boys only.”
She returned a few days later and requested that the owner show her how to use a computer. “He finally agreed, but only if there were… at least 20 of us in the class, so I invited all of my relatives and friends to join me,” she says. “And that’s how I first learned to use a computer, and that was the moment I realized how big the world was and how much information I could access.”
Roya is now the Herat-based Afghanistan Citadel Software Company’s CEO, which works to place recent university graduates – specifically women – in Afghanistan’s expanding tech market. Citadel of New York was created in 2012 to create and encourage Examer, an interactive and educational social networking platform with a Micro Scholarship Payment System that Roya also assisted in developing.
Roya was named one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2013 for her work in constructing internet classrooms in Afghan high schools through the Digital Citizen Fund (DCF), a non-profit she launched to help girls and women around the world gain access to technology. According to UNICEF, 3.7 million Afghan children, 60 percent of whom are girls, are not attending school. Around 85 percent of out-of-school children in Afghanistan’s most difficult-to-reach areas and conflict zones are girls.
“Our mission through internet classrooms and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education are to increase women’s participation and advancement in the workplace and [to prepare them] for future jobs,” Roya explains. “[We intend] to expand our internet classes program into villages throughout the provinces. We are now working on an online education platform that will allow girls from all over the world to access our online education.”
“I began the Digital Citizen Fund with a goal and a dream,” she says. “The goal was to make technology available to everyone. The dream was that everyone, particularly young women and girls, would have equal access to opportunities and education, regardless of gender or social status, even in conservative countries.”
Roya hopes to see young women design and develop digital solutions to issues in their communities, similar to what the Afghan Dreamers are doing.
“I would advise young Afghan women interested in technology, robotics, or engineering that in the new world, young women will need to seek out opportunities for building individual wealth and, in the process, high-value economic models for their nations.”
She feels that STEM education is critical to their futures in an increasingly globalized world.
“In the West, kids are talking about how robots are replacing people in the workforce,” she says. “[But] the issue is that Afghanistan is so far behind. It is lagging in the educational sector. What is the point of preparing girls for scarce jobs for women now and will most likely be scarce when they complete their studies? I’m talking about preparing these young ladies for real-world opportunities in the future. They’ve already fallen behind, and now we have to catch up, so we have to be realistic.”
Following a meeting with the Afghan President in 2019, the Ministry of Education vowed to integrate STEM into the national curriculum, making Mahboob’s dream of establishing the country’s first STEM school a reality. The school, which will be named ‘The Dreamer Institute’ in honor of the Afghan Dreamers and their achievements, is set to open 2022.
Roya believes that seeing her mother, a manager at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, “working and opening doors for herself so that she could be financially independent,” inspired her to be independent and led her to “that small computer shop… trying to learn, all those years ago.”
“After my studies [at the computer shop], opportunities began to open up for me, and I realized I could have the career that I had hoped for as a girl, but I knew there were millions of other girls just like me,” Roya says. “Girls who were inquisitive but were only given a narrow world to explore.”
This is what prompted her to establish the DCF. Today, the Afghan Dreamers collaborate with the DCF to hold weekly workshops in Kabul and Herat to teach girls the fundamentals of robotics.
‘Just kids working hard.’
While the Afghan Dreamers have gained widespread acclaim, Roya believes they have also been put under greater strain than the many other teams working on ventilators based on the MIT design, including those in Afghanistan. She claims that the media singled them out because they were the only all-female team.
“If the girls do great things, they will be in the spotlight, but if they do normal things, they will also be in the spotlight,” she says. “But they are girls, so if they fail, they will be chastised more, and if they succeed, they will be praised more. It’s the curse of being an Afghan lady in any field. But they are just kids trying their hardest to do something good. And that should be sufficient in and of itself. It shouldn’t be awesome because they’re girls, but because of the ability required to complete the challenge. The Afghan Dreamers, for example, were the first to discover that windshield-wiper engines could be tricked into powering a working ventilator.”
Roya agrees with Somaya that role models and mentors are essential for young Afghan girls. “It is critical for any adolescent, anywhere in the world. And it is critical to show young Afghan girls what is possible, and having more women in the tech and science industry will inspire them to be more ambitious and change the perception of women’s ability in… [a] male-dominated industry,” she says.
“I have witnessed the incredible power of technology and education in my personal and professional life, and I believe that the internet and technology have the potential not only to open up new realities but also to break down barriers.”
She explores how, by adopting the global information society’s tools, she has transformed herself into something more significant than herself: a digital global citizen.
Roya organized a series of collaborations, including the Afghan Dreamers’ prototype ventilator.
“What we created was an automated add-on solution to an existing bag, which we call the bag-valve-mask,” she explains.
“While this ventilator could reduce the load on existing ventilators by acting as a manual ventilator to assist patients with respiratory difficulties, it was never intended to replace ventilators in hospitals assisting patients in critical condition.”
She claims that the team made contact with many people from all over the world who were eager to assist from afar, including an MIT professor and a Harvard-educated surgeon.
After a year of working on the prototype ventilator, the team has moved on to two other projects that they created. The UVC Robot is outfitted with UV sterilisation lights to sanitize indoor areas to combat COVID-19. The Spray Robot is a disinfection robot that can clean both indoor and outdoor areas.
“The Ministry approved them of Health, and we are currently constructing a factory to produce them,” Roya says.
‘She is now their role model.’
Roya recalls meeting Somaya for the first time. The team arrived in Washington, DC, in 2017 to compete in the robotics tournament.
“She was timid and nervous because it was her first time traveling outside of her home country. “Somaya was the quietest of the girls,” she says. Her protege, however, is no longer the calm girl she first met.
“At first, I was concerned about how she would handle the pressure of her country and the West watching her. But, despite her calm demeanor, she was tenacious, and when I look at her now, I see how much she has matured. She is patient and a good listener, both of which are excellent leadership traits. Younger children, both boys, and girls look up to her, and she is now their role model.”
Roya feels that Afghanistan’s worsening security situation is now the most challenging obstacle for the girls she hopes to assist. “I had a lot of challenges in my career; I mean, people will try to stop you in any way they can, and it’s deliberate. However, I believe Somaya and other girls her age are security in Afghanistan, long-term cultural problems, and a lack of resources and access to high-quality education. Still, I see opportunities, adventures, and great achievement in all of the girls’ futures.”