The rescue was a collaboration between an Afghanistan-based nonprofit and the Qatari government, according to officials
Last week, many monitoring the situation in Afghanistan celebrated as at least a dozen members of a famed, all-girl Afghan robotics team managed to escape the country as it fell to Taliban control.
Now, as more detail emerges about how the girls got out, things have gotten more complicated: government officials and Afghan organisers have lashed out at an Oklahoma woman who received headlines around the world for supposedly securing their release, dubbing her a “White saviour” who exaggerated her role. Meanwhile, she maintains the media misrepresented her story, and that it was always a team effort.
The Digital Citizen Fund (DCF), the parent organisation of the team dubbed the “Afghan Dreamers,” sent Allyson Reneau, an Oklahoma-based entrepreneur and STEM advocate, lauded for her apparent role in the rescue, a cease-and-desist letter on Wednesday.
The group’s attorney blasted Ms Reneau, writing, “It is highly unfortunate that you would use such a tragically horrible situation … for what appears to be your own personal gain,” adding, “Continuingly recycling old pictures with the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, many of whom are minors, as validation that you had anything to do with their immensely stressful and dangerous escape not only impacts the safety of the girls but it also significantly affects the safety of the members of the team who still remain in Afghanistan.
The Qatari foreign ministry offered a similar account. It said in a statement to the Washington Post that the rescue came about when Roya Mahboob, an Afghan business executive who founded the DCF, contacted a Qatari diplomat in mid-August. The girls then met with the Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan in a “secure location,” before being transported to Doha and Mexico City.
“She took the agency from the girls and she claimed credit,” ministry spokesperson Ibrahim AlHashmi said. “The media let her be a White savior, claiming the girls were saved by her. They came to global attention because of their work … so it should be about them and their courage and the work they have done. This should be the story that the media is focusing on, not a woman who is thousands of miles away who is claiming credit.”
The foreign ministry added it hadn’t worked with Ms Reneau, and that the US Embassy hadn’t mentioned her doing any work on the rescue. (The State Department declines to comment on individual cases to protect privacy.)
This clashes with Ms Reneau’s version of events, and how the media subsequently represented them.
Ms Reneau, who sits on the board of the nonprofit Explore Mars, began getting international attention for what she represented as a central role in the rescue. One typical headline, from CNN, read, “How an Oklahoma mom rescued 10 Afghan girls.”
Explore Mars had flown the robotics team to Washington DC for a space conference in 2019, and Ms Reneau said she had kept in touch with the organisation. As it became clear the country would collapse, Ms Reneau said she connected an old friend in the US embassy in Qatar, who helped arrange the rescue.
“I decided to take some action,” she told CNN on 20 August. “She went back to work at midnight, and stayed up all night preparing their information and their packets, and presented it, and the leadership there and in Kabul went to town and took action.”
The interview made no mention of DCF or the other partners who said they were part of the airlift.
What’s more, some outlets including the New York Post and Wall Street Journal initially reported Ms Reneau had flown to Qatar herself, before later making corrections. The Journal even called for putting “this extraordinary woman” in charge of Afghan rescue efforts in an editorial.
The STEM advocate wrote on Facebook on Friday that allegations she overstated her role in the rescue were “slanderous and untrue.”
“I can produce HUNDREDS of texts, emails and phone calls that shows the collaborative efforts between myself, Roya (mentioned in the article), the US Embassy in Qatar, and also with [US] Senator [Jim] Inhofe,” she added.
“My wish for these girls is that they’re the architects of their own future and they have the freedom to choose their own future,” Ms Reneau told NBC News. “I never stepped into this rescue effort to bring attention to myself.”
She has sent her own cease-and-desist letter to DCF over the fracas, which the organisation called “ridiculous.”
Ms Reneau has raised more than $50,000 for her nonprofit that she says she will use to help transport more girls out of Afghanistan.
At least a dozen members of the team have left the country, with five arriving in Mexico on Wednesday and others remaining in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Other members of the team, like many Afghans with ties to the West, remain stranded in the country and at risk of Taliban persecution. The DCF is raising money to provide the young women with scholarships for continuing education.