Sara Wahedi, 27, is the CEO of Ehtesab, an app that sends near real-time security, traffic, electricity and other alerts to users in Afghanistan.
The app is managed by a team of Afghan developers and staffers who crowdsource and verify the reports before sending alerts. Ehtesab, financed by an Afghan tech company up until March 2020, is now a nonprofit that relies on crowdfunding.
Born in Kabul, Wahedi and her family settled in 2005 in Canada, where she studied at the University of British Columbia and Douglas College. She returned to Kabul in 2017 and stayed until the Taliban takeover in August 2021.
Wahedi moved to New York last year to study human rights with a concentration in urban studies and data science at Columbia University. She expects to graduate in December 2023.
Upon graduation, she is interested in pursuing a masters in architectural studies at MIT. and is also considering going to law school.
Her favorite Afghan dish is ashak dumplings, because they remind her of her mother, and nothing compares to a mother’s cooking. Wahedi hopes to return to Afghanistan when it is safe.
She is continuously threatened with detainment by the Taliban on Twitter if she returns to her home country and doesn’t stop speaking out against them.
What were some of your goals and inspiration behind Ehtesab?
The idea came to my mind following a suicide explosion that occurred a few yards from my home in May 2018. It was a 12-hour ordeal and we woke up with more questions than answers. [The street had been cordoned off by Afghan army officials, who were trying to infiltrate the area where IS-K militants were hiding.]
I wonder how a city like Kabul did not have a verified, monitored platform where residents could retrieve emergency information. Ehtesab was going to be the solution to that problem, and we have been serving that mission for the last six months…Ehtesab is an offshoot of the words “accountability” and “transparency” in both Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s official languages. It isn’t a “real” word per se, because I wanted Afghans to define Ehtesab for themselves. What did they feel like it meant to them? Ehtesab’s ownership is shared by all Afghans, and its ambiguous name serves that purpose.
What’s a misconception people have about Afghans—specifically Afghan women—that you would like to clarify?
A misconception is that Afghan women are limited to their environment. They are bold, passionate, educated and emboldened to lead themselves and their communities. It has never been about providing a “hand-out” to Afghan women.
They simply want their agency to lead and have the freedom to make their own decisions—rather than being suffocated and having others make decisions on their behalf. Afghan women have many infinite gains over two decades and cannot go back to square one. They will not allow it to happen. I am sure of it.
So you’re a graduate student and CEO of Ehtesab. How do you manage your time? What are some pastime activities that you enjoy?
It is difficult to manage my time, definitely.
I usually study or attend classes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and then work on Ehtesab from the evening to midnight everyday. So, I’m working everyday with my team [which is in Afghanistan and has seven current members] or on other tasks related to Ehtesab.
I enjoy museums, visiting historical sites, photography, catching up over tea with friends.
How do you view the role of journalism in covering the Afghan community and the diaspora?
The role of journalism is incredibly important. Timely, accountable and honorable journalism. Misinformation and disinformation is causing a crisis within Afghanistan, because it is becoming impossible to gather and verify reports.
There needs to be a collective response on how to deal with this issue, because I am deeply concerned that misinformation and disinformation will cause significant harm to those who need to get their stories shared across the world.
We need to support journalists who have a strong track record in robust, hard-hitting journalism.
What’s something that journalists and news organizations can do better? How can journalism better serve your community?
Definitely treating fixers better. Focusing less on garnering the “best and brightest” from abroad to go to other countries, but facilitating the “best and brightest” from within countries like Afghanistan to lead reporting.
Because it is their home, their community—and they know it best.
What does success mean to you and your vision for the Afghan community in Afghanistan and all around the world?
Success is seeing change within my community.
Personal success is a quick peak that you reach, with no real happiness brought with it. Success to me, is being able to play a small role in working with my community to bring about holistic, sustainable change.
My vision for the general Afghan community is to support a period of healing and reconciliation. After cyclical warfare, this is the time to stop and think about what has unfolded over the years.
Without that, we will not be able to approach problem-solving in Afghanistan. We need to come to terms with what has happened, take a breath and then get back to work.