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Afghan-Canadian entrepreneur terrified for her staff now stuck under Taliban rule

By Jeremiah Rodriguez, Writer

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    TORONTO, Ontario (CTV Network) — An Afghan-Canadian app entrepreneur is desperately trying to get her staff out of Kabul because she’s terrified they’ll be targeted by the Taliban.

“I have not heard any of my team members going somewhere outside, other than the men — who maybe have had to get bread or something urgent,” Sara Wahedi told in a phone interview on Monday.

Her team created Ehtesab, an app that tracks security issues, such as explosions, shootings and fires in Afghanistan, but now, around 10 of them are in hiding. They fear they’ll be targeted by the Taliban for being ethnic minorities or going to western-run schools in Afghanistan. Others are frightened they’ll be beaten for the way that they dress, act or speak — especially Wahedi’s female employees.

“I’m just scrambling right now to get them out and working with some amazing international partners to hopefully expedite that process,” said Wahedi, who is in New York, studying human rights at Columbia University. She said they can maintain the app regardless of where they are.

For weeks, the 26-year-old has been trying to get her entire staff of software developers and marketing experts out of Afghanistan but only a handful have been able to leave. And now, with Taliban authorities heavily restricting most travel in or out, the situation is dire.

In August, thousands of Afghans, particularly those who worked with western forces, were able to secure seats on flights out of the country. But thousands of desperate Afghans such as Wahedi’s staff haven’t been as fortunate.

Wahedi, a dual citizen of Afghanistan and Canada, lived in Kabul but regularly travelled between there and Coquitlam, B.C. to see family. When the Taliban took Afghanistan, she happened to be visiting Canada.

“I was literally sobbing… I couldn’t see through my eyes while I was typing and speaking with my team in real time,” she said. “It was probably one of the most traumatic experiences of my life to be in Vancouver and to be so far from my team, so far from my family.”

Now, Wahedi says every day she’s reminded of the privilege of simply having basic safety and “every millisecond of my life has felt just completely guilt ridden.”

WEBSITE SCRUBBED AS TEAM PREPARED FOR ‘ABSOLUTE WORST’ In 2018, Wahedi created Ehtesab, a Kabul-based startup that tracks security issues such as explosions and fires and sends people real-time alerts based on their GPS location.

The mobile app, whose name combines Dari and Pashto words to translate to “accountability,” effectively tells people which areas to temporarily avoid. Many of the incidents are crowdsourced, with users reporting what they’re seeing and sending in their own photos.

But last month, a lot of Ehtesab’s work was put on hold because the developers themselves were in danger by the approaching Taliban soldiers.

“It wasabsolutely unimaginable to any of us that this would have become a reality.”

Wahedi said they began preparing for “absolute worst.” Hours before the Taliban entered Kabul, her workers frantically scrambled to get to their homes.

“The team was able to get out of the office, take their laptops, take whatever they had, and then leave before the Taliban took the city centre,” she said.

Meanwhile in Canada, Wahedi went through the painstaking process of deleting years of photos, videos, and any staff information from the website — scrubbing any mention of the female workers who’ve been associated with the app.

Ehtesab safety alert app

“There is this collapsing feeling of, ‘will I ever be able to return to my homeland?’ And that that feeling is inexplicable,” she said.

Wahedi has always yearned for her fellow Afghans to have the same freedoms and assurances of safety that she has in Canada.

She was born and raised in Kabul but, in 2000, she and her family left the turmoil in Afghanistan. Wahedi became a Canadian citizen in 2008 and, in recent years, she wanted to give back to her home country and worked for the Kabul government.

But her sense of duty to her people really took told in May 2018, when she narrowly survived several suicide bombings near her office.

Once she had safely made it to her apartment, she learned the Islamic State had attacked a nearby Indian visa office. And although that “very, very traumatizing incident” shook Wahedi, it went on to inspire her to create the Ehtesab safety app.

“We’re a place that has just been crippled by violence and war, so it was astounding to me that there wasn’t any possible way Afghans could get security information anywhere,” Wahedi said, calling the app one of the ways Afghans could take more control of their lives.

“If I can give someone just a sigh of relief, that’s everything for me,” she said.

WORK ON SAFETY APP ‘OUR WAY OF PROTEST’ More than 63 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is under 25 and Wahedi said a lot of them are feeling lost right now. And that sentiment is shared by most of her staff, who aren’t any older than 25.

She said they’re now fighting through their pain because they’re emboldened to do their part to help their fellow Afghans.

She said resuming and expanding the app is now “our way of protest.”

Wahedi and her team are actively looking for technology partners, including in Canada, to help them make the app more robust, expand their reach to rural areas, and allow people to report and document crimes against humanity or other things the Taliban are doing.

“A lot of people are asking, ‘I guess you’re going to have to limit your work now?’ No. Absolutely not,” she said defiantly.

“We’re going to double down on the work that we can do and just keep having a very direct eye on what the Taliban is doing,” Wahedi said. “It doesn’t matter what government is in place, we’re still going to have our resiliency.”

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