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Burundi Robotics Team Missing After Competition in DC

Several teen Burundi robotics team members are missing after an international competition in D.C. Two were spotted leaving the U.S. and entering Canada.
A group of Burundi teens have gone missing after competing in a robotics event in Washington, D.C.
A group of Burundi teens have gone missing after competing in a robotics event in Washington, D.C.DC Police Dept.
/ Source: NBC Washington

WASHINGTON — Six teenage members of the Burundi robotics team were reported missing after competing in an international competition this week in Washington.

Police tweeted missing person fliers Wednesday asking for help finding the teens last seen in the area of the FIRST Global Challenge around the time of Tuesday's final matches. The missing team members include two 17-year-old girls and four males ranging in age from 16 to 18.

Two of the six teens, Audrey Mwamikazi, 17, and Don Ingabire, 16, were seen crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada, police said Thursday. But no additional details were released.

The competition, designed to encourage youths to pursue careers in math and science, attracted teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations. A squad of girls from Afghanistan drew the most attention after they were twice rejected for U.S. visas and President Donald Trump intervened.

A group of Burundi teens have gone missing after competing in a robotics event in Washington, D.C.
A group of Burundi teens have gone missing after competing in a robotics event in Washington, D.C.DC Police Dept.

Competition organizers learned Tuesday night that the team's mentor couldn't find the six students who participated in the competition and organization President FIRST Global President Joe Sestak made the initial call to the police, according to a FIRST Global Challenge statement.

"Security of the students is of paramount importance to FIRST Global," organizers said, noting that they ensure students get to their dormitories after the competition by providing safe transportation to students staying at Trinity Washington University. The students "are always to be under close supervision of their adult mentor and are advised not to leave the premises unaccompanied by the mentor."

The mentor said the teens traveled from Burundi for the competition and have one-year visas, according to police reports. The mentor said they disappeared after the competition, but he doesn't know where they went.

Police reports say investigators tried to contact the uncle of one missing teen but got no response. The reports say police canvassed DAR Constitution Hall, where the competition was held.

The investigation is ongoing.

A representative of the Embassy of Burundi in Washington, D.C. said Thursday morning that the embassy did not know the students were in the U.S. until they were reported missing. They said they had no obligation to check in with them.

Burundi's government had no immediate comment Thursday.

The competition's webpage about Team Burundi shows the six team members posing with a flag and says team members were selected from schools in Bujumbura, the capital city. The team's slogan in Kirundi is "Ugushaka Nugushobora," meaning "where there is wiling is also the ability," according to the page.

Police tweeted images of the teens Wednesday, saying they are looking for 17-year-old girls, Audrey Mwamikazi and Nice Munezero; 18-year-old men, Richard Irakoze and Aristide Irambona; Kevin Sabumukiza, 17; and Don Ingabire, 16.

Burundi, a nation of about 10 million people, is plagued by violence, the U.S. State Department warned last month. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley discussed the tenuous situation in Burundi during a meeting with Smaïl Chergui, the African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security on Wednesday.

"The political situation in Burundi is tenuous, and there is sporadic violence throughout the country, including frequent gunfire and grenade attacks by armed groups," a travel warning for Americans says. "Rebel forces, ex-combatants, and youth gangs have crossed into Burundi from the Democratic Republic of Congo and attacked and kidnapped civilians."

Residents face widespread human rights abuses, including murder, rape and torture by political groups, according to Human Rights Watch.

Hassan Ahmad, an immigration lawyer in northern Virginia not involved in the situation, said that if the teens make an asylum application, then Immigration and Customs Enforcement could seek to detain the teens pending removal proceedings. The teens would be eligible to seek bond and stay in the country while they await their hearing. It can take years to have a court hearing scheduled. And even if ICE declines to seek detention, it can take several years for applicants to have their formal interview to determine whether they are eligible for asylum.