The six teenage girls on an all-female Afghan robotics team who were initially denied one-week U.S. visas to participate in an international competition caught the country's attention in recent weeks. The teens were turned away two times by U.S. officials, and as details emerged of the struggles they all faced and their dangerous journeys from the small town of Herat to Kabul in attempts to get visas.
But among those working behind the scenes to get the State Department to let the girls enter the country before President Trump's intervention was New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The senator met with the team on Wednesday, talking with them about their experience and giving them a Congressional Record statement in English and Dari, the teenagers' language, honoring their visit.
Refinery29 caught up with Sen. Shaheen afterwards to discuss her meeting the team, why girls' education and getting more women in STEM fields is important, and what's next for the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
How was the experience of meeting these girls, and why do you think it was important to meet them?
"It was very inspirational to meet them. I was particularly interested because we tried to help in our office to work with the State Department on getting them visas. I sit in both the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. And so I have followed very closely, as have so many in America, the end of the Taliban rule and Afghanistan opening up its society, getting girls in school. To have a team here from Afghanistan for this FIRST Global robotics competition was very exciting. Also, it was interesting to me because FIRST began in New Hampshire.
"It gets kids engaged in ways that school often can't engage them. To see these girls and to know what hurdles they had to overcome was just, as I said, inspiring.
"To think they overcame all these obstacles, they finished with a silver medal for courage for what they did. They all had their medals on and they showed them very proudly. That's a wonderful example for people around the world of what can be accomplished with commitment and support when you have the determination to do it."
Was there a particular anecdote they told you that was your favorite?
"They talked about having practice with boxes when the robot didn't come. And the challenge of trying to figure out the game without having the actual robot that they needed. And how they were able to build it with what they could secure in their home country before they left.
"We asked them what they were gonna do, and they were very excited about being able to go to an amusement park tomorrow. They said they were at least going to get a little bit of fun before they go home."
You have championed STEM education efforts and are an advocate of girls’ education around the world. With reports that the White House might roll back the Let Girls Learn program, do you worry that the issue might be pushed to the side? And do you plan to introduce legislation or programs to help on this issue?
"We introduced legislation that's basically modeled on the Let Girls Learn program. Because I think it's very important to continue that... I think [it was] Warren Buffet who said it was easy to compete when he was only competing against half of the world. When we don't use the talents of all people, we don't get the benefits. It makes no sense to cut women and girls out of the ability to participate, not only to get a good education, but participate in the STEM subjects.
"It's one of the things that we need to do more to encourage. In the United States — as in the rest of the world, but particularly in the U.S. — we are not producing enough people who have degrees in the STEM subjects. We need to do everything possible to encourage young women to get involved in those subjects. It's not only good for the economy in terms of providing the workforce that we need, but it's good for girls.
What message would you give to girls, like the girls on this team, who are pursuing STEM subjects and may feel like it's not a girl's place because that's what society has taught us for so long?
"To persevere. With hard work and determination you can accomplish your goals. Keep at it."
Distancing ourselves a bit from this topic, the GOP healthcare reform has been all over the news this week. How do you feel about the fact that three of your female Republican colleagues are being credited or blamed, depending on who you ask, as the ones who helped stop a potential Obamacare repeal?
"First of all, I admire my colleagues — Sen. Collins, Capito, and Murkowski — for being willing and having the courage to take a stand. And as I'm sure you're aware, often the caregivers in a family are the women, who take care of doctor's appointments, who take their kids to get care when they need it, who deal with aging parents when they have to go to nursing homes or have to go to a hospital. And I know that these three women have not only dealt with these issues personally, but they also have heard from their constituents about their healthcare needs.
"I think they responded in the way of most of us respond. When people are worried about losing their healthcare, they can't feel good about the rest of their lives. And I'm sure they heard, as I have for months now, from constituents who are so worried about what will happen to them, to their children, to their parents, to their families if the Affordable Care Act was repealed and they could no longer get healthcare."
What's next in the fight to keep the ACA?
"I don't know what happens next; none of us do. But what I hope happens next is that we will work together in Congress and in the Senate to address some of the things that need fixing about the Affordable Care Act, some of the individual markets where, because of uncertainty, rates have gone up and insurers have withdrawn. [Insurers] cited very particularly the uncertainty around the repeal bill, they've cited the uncertainty around whether they will continue to receive the payments that they're promised through the Affordable Care Act to help people that can't afford insurance.
"There are a number of things that we can do short-term, that we need to do to stabilize the markets, to reassure people that they're going to continue to have their healthcare, and that's what we should be focused on, and we should do that in a bipartisan way. Stop dealing behind closed doors, stop not letting the American people know what's going on, and I hope that's going to be the next step."
This interview has been edited and condensed.