On a warm and cloudy day in The Plains, Virginia, a group of middle school students from various countries participated in the American Rocketry Challenge, a prestigious competition sponsored by the Defense Department, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and top U.S. defense contractors. Out of 922 teams that applied from across the nation, only the top 100 teams were selected to compete in Virginia.

One team that stood out was from Francis Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia. The team members, originally from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Ukraine, had faced numerous challenges before arriving in the United States. For example, Artem, a 12-year-old student from Ukraine, had to flee his country when Russia invaded in February 2024. Despite the hardships he faced, Artem found solace in designing rockets and utilizing his creativity.

Another team member, Farhan, escaped Afghanistan with his family during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal when the Taliban seized control. His journey to safety involved a two-day trek on foot in scorching heat and encounters with the Taliban. Farhan’s family eventually made it to the United States, where he now dreams of becoming a pilot.

Yosra, another student on the team, also fled Afghanistan with her family and aspires to become a lawyer working for the U.S. government. Building rockets has provided her with a sense of freedom and opportunity that she may not have had back in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Babur, who left Afghanistan at the age of 10 with his family, expressed gratitude for the opportunities available to him in the United States. He hopes to work in the aerospace industry in the future.

Despite the challenges they faced, these students showcased their resilience and determination by successfully launching their rocket in the competition. While their rocket landed in a bush on descent, the egg they were tasked with carrying survived, securing them the 50th place.

Although they did not clinch the top spot, Farhan expressed pride in his team’s accomplishments and vowed to continue making his family proud. The students’ participation in the competition not only highlighted their passion for STEM fields but also symbolized their journey of overcoming adversity and embracing new opportunities in the United States.