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Refugee advocate develops app to help protect people in Afghanistan


Refugee advocate develops app to help protect people in Afghanistan

Sara Wahedi combined her tech skills with her activism to create a digital app that warns users in Afghanistan about potential threats to their safety.
13 March 2024
United States of America. Sara Wahedi, founder and CEO of Ehtesab and former Afghan refugee in New York City.

Sara Wahedi, founder and CEO of Ehtesab and former Afghan refugee, in New York City.

“I'll never forget the day. It was 9 May, 2018, and I was just a few steps away from my home in Kabul, and there was just a rush of people in a scramble,” recalls Sara Wahedi.

“Then, three back-to-back explosions, maybe 10, 20 yards away from my home.”

Fortunately, Sara was unharmed. But after the attack, her neighbourhood was locked down, and authorities shared no information with residents. At the time, there was no real-time emergency alert system in her community. 

“It was like a lightbulb moment for me – that this is exactly the kind of tool that needs to exist in crisis states, in crisis regions.”

After the bombings, Sara launched Ehtesab, a mobile app that crowdsources information about emergency events and then verifies them before sending alerts to users in Afghanistan. 

Launched nearly six years ago, Ehtesab has sent a quarter million alerts to users across the country about incidents ranging from explosions and arrests, to road closures and traffic accidents, to extreme weather and earthquakes.

United States of America. Sara Wahedi, founder and CEO of Ehtesab and former Afghan refugee in New York City.

 Ehtesab has sent a quarter million alerts to users across Afghanistan since it launched nearly six years ago.

Ehtesab — a name created from words in Dari and Pashto that mean transparency, accountability and responsibility – is rooted in the idea that freedom of information is essential to protection. 

“Access to information is one of those rights that many people don't know is entrenched in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” says Sara. “There should never be a politicization of urgent information.”

Like the inspiration to launch Ehtesab, Sara’s advocacy for forcibly displaced people and marginalized communities comes from lived experience. As a child, her family was forced to flee Afghanistan. 

Their journey brought them first to Germany, then to the United States and finally to Canada, where they were resettled and where Sara grew up.

“I always felt like I missed being in Afghanistan, and I think that's the reason why my work is so focused on Afghanistan,” she says.

By 2018, Sara had returned to her home country to work in the Kabul office of the former president. But the bombing in May that year fundamentally shifted her career path and advocacy work.

After founding Ehtasab, she enrolled at Columbia University in New York City to study data science and urban studies. Now 28-years-old, she continues to lead Ehtesab as a full-time student.

Finding safe and equitable ways to include women’s voices at Ehtesab has been important to Sara from day one. Sixty percent of the company’s employees are women in software engineering and data analysis roles, many of them based in Afghanistan.

“Something that we've been working on [at Ehtesab] is trying to figure out how to bring women's voices across Afghanistan to the forefront,” says Sara. “We're working with interesting technology and machine learning to ensure the safety of women while they're reporting incidents.”

Another group of Afghan voices Sara is amplifying and trying to include in decision-making spaces are those of Afghanistan’s refugee youth. 

In December 2023, Sara spoke on a panel discussing challenges and opportunities for Afghan refugees at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. She shared the stories of three Afghan refugee youth living in Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia, noting their great potential and the challenges they face to realize it.

“Their perspectives are vital as they are the architects of Afghanistan’s future,” she said. “Their desperation to continue their education and chase their dreams is palpable, yet they find themselves in a paradoxical state of refuge, one that [does not] offer the fullness of safety and strips them of their dignity.” 

After graduating from Columbia University, Sara plans to continue advocating for Afghans and seeking connections between technology, human rights and refugee protection.
“What's important for me now is to connect the technology that I've been able to lead over the last five to six years, but bridge that with the policies of agencies like the United Nations and [other] international organizations.”

She would also like to be able to expand Ehtesab to reach people in other countries.

“[I want to] spread the message in terms of this fundamental human right, that every human on this earth has access to information that is non-politicized, that's immediate and that can support the safety and health of our communities.”

The original version of this story was published on USA for UNHCR on 8 March, 2024.