Students from war-torn countries find safe haven in the US, compete in a national rocketry competition

On a humid cloudy day an hour outside the nation’s capital in The Plains, Virginia, teams of middle school students reached for the stars by competing in the American Rocketry Challenge, the world’s largest student rocket building competition. 

The contest is sponsored by the Defense Department, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and top U.S. defense contractors.

A total of 922 teams from all over the country applied, but only the top 100 teams were chosen to travel to Virginia to compete. The objective for each team was to build a rocket and launch it as high as possible while carrying an egg and landing without the egg breaking.

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One team from Francis Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia, had already overcome the odds before stepping onto the field to launch their rocket. The group of students was not born in the United States. Their families fled their homes in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Turkey and Ukraine. Their teachers recruited them to join the school’s rocketry club in part to help them learn English and adjust to life in America.

Artem, 12, came to the U.S. from Ukraine with his mother after Russia invaded in February 2024. Artem was scared by the snipers and tanks outside their apartment building. Now, while his countrymen use artillery and drones to fight the Russian military, Artem is designing rockets. Artem loves using his creativity and has found a home in his school’s art department. He helped design the team’s rocket.  

“When we needed to put the motor in, the motor didn’t fit, so we needed to make the space bigger. I was doing all that,” Artem told Fox News.

Farhan, 13, fled Afghanistan with his father, mother, grandfather and sister three years ago during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal when the Taliban took control. Now, he is focused on studying physics and wants to be a pilot.

“I’m really happy that we made it all the way to here. I’m proud of us and my team. We accomplished a lot,” Farhan said in an interview.

What he did not talk about was his journey to get to the United States.

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Farhan’s father worked with the U.S. government for years before the country fell to the Taliban and asked not to be named to protect his family still in Afghanistan. Fearing for his family’s safety, he scrambled to get Farhan’s family to the airport. 

It involved a two-day journey on foot in the scorching heat and being repeatedly beaten by the Taliban. When they reached Abbey Gate, a U.S. Marine on the perimeter watching the crowd recognized Farhan’s father, having worked with him before. The Marine ushered his family into the airport. They were greeted warmly by a young female Marine who just days later was killed in the Abbey Gate bombing along with 12 U.S. service members.

Farhan’s family made it to safety on a U.S. military plane and eventually were brought to the United States. Now, Farhan says, when he grows up, he wants to be a pilot.

“Our country had been taken over, and it wasn’t safe anymore. So we had to move,” Farhan said.

Yosra is another student on the team whose family also fled Afghanistan in August 2021. She wants to be a lawyer and work for the U.S. government when she grows up. But, right now, she loves building rockets, something the Taliban would never have allowed if she had stayed in Afghanistan.

“It feels like I’m free. Like I could do, like I could get anywhere I want. … I wouldn’t be able to dare even speak English if I was there. I mean, not even go to school. So, like, it feels nice. I feel proud,” Yosra said.

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On Aug. 27, Babur left Afghanistan with his family when he was just 10 years old. His father worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military, which is how the family was able to come to the United States. Babur loves studying science and space. He said he wants to work in the aerospace industry when he grows up.

“I’m thankful because I’m independent, and I have a lot of opportunities to do here. Programs like right now, rocketry club,” Babur said.

On hand to observe the students’ successful launch was NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg, who represented his Pittsburgh high school at the same competition in 2003. Hoburg has spent 186 days in space and just returned last September from piloting the SpaceX mission to the International Space Station.

“I’m really passionate about students being able to get their hands dirty and build things, experiment, maybe fail once in a while, find out that flights don’t go perfectly,” Hoburg told Fox News.

After launching 847 feet in the air, the team’s rocket landed in a bush on descent. Anxious to see whether their egg had survived, the students sprinted to the bush in an effort to get it out. After arguing among themselves, they decided to wait impatiently as a competition official came to remove the rocket and its parachute from the bush.

The egg survived, and the students came in 50th place.

Even though they didn’t win, Farhan is proud of what his team accomplished. He said he wants to continue to make his family proud.

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“We’re going to make our country and them proud,” Farhan said. “We’re going to pay back everything they did for us.”