Young Afghan women work on lifesaving mission to build ventilators from car parts

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Five Afghan young women are spending their days on a lifesaving mission to build a ventilator from car parts as the war-stricken country battles coronavirus.

Nearly every morning, Somaya Farooqi and four other members of Afghanistan’s prize-winning girls’ robotics team pile into her father’s car and head to a mechanic’s workshop.

They use back roads to avoid police checkpoints set up to enforce a lockdown in their city of Herat, one of Afghanistan’s hotspots of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we even save one life with our device, we will be proud,” said 17-year-old Somaya.

Their pursuit is particularly remarkable in conservative Afghanistan. Only a generation ago, during the rule of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban in the late 1990s, girls were not allowed to go to school, and Somaya’s own mother was pulled out of classes at a young age.

After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, girls returned to schools, but gaining equal rights remains a struggle.

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Ventilator research
The girls are developing two types of ventilator device using car parts (Hamed Safarazi/AP)

Somaya is undaunted. “We are the new generation,” she said in a phone interview. “We fight and work for people. Girl and boy, it does not matter anymore.”

Afghanistan faces the pandemic nearly empty-handed. It has only 400 ventilators for a population of more than 36.6 million people. So far, it has reported just over 900 coronavirus cases, including 30 deaths, but the actual number is suspected to be much higher since test kits are in short supply.

The Herat province in western Afghanistan is one of the nation’s hotspots because of its proximity to Iran, the region’s epicentre of the outbreak.

This has spurred Somaya and her team, aged 14 to 17, to help come up with a solution.

At their workshop, the team is experimenting with two designs, including an open-source blueprint from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The parts being used include the motor of a Toyota windshield wiper, batteries and sets of bag valve masks, or manual oxygen pumps. A group of mechanics helps them build the frame of a ventilator.

Ventilator research
The girls are all part of Afghanistan’s prize-winning girls’ robotics team (Hamed Sarfarazi/AP)

Daniela Rus, a professor at MIT, welcomed the team’s initiative to develop the prototype. “It will be excellent to see it tested and locally produced,” she said.

Tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who founded the team and raises funds to empower girls and young women, said she hopes Somaya’s group will finish building a prototype by May or June. In all, the team has 15 members who work on various projects.

The ventilator model, once completed, would then be sent to the health ministry for testing, initially on animals, said spokesman Wahid Mayar.

Somaya, who was just 14 when she participated in the first World Robot Olympiad in the US in 2017, said she and her team members hope to make a contribution.

“Afghans should be helping Afghanistan in this pandemic,” she said. “We should not wait for others.”

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