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Afghan NGO remains dedicated to nation's youth amid uncertain future

Scenes from Afghanistan continue to dominate the news this week after the fall of the Afghan government. Marnie Gustafson is the executive director of PARSA, a non-profit organization based there. She left Kabul this past Sunday to return to family in the Seattle-area.

PARSA's mission is to train Afghan leaders who support young people in Afghanistan. That work includes the development of a nationwide scouting program which serves ten thousand girls and boys. Gustavson told KUOW producer John O'Brien about her work there, and what it was like to leave so suddenly.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

On leaving Afghanistan and her colleagues after 16 years

It was very difficult to leave them, and leave them in such uncertain circumstances. I left at about 8:30 in the morning. By the time I got off the plane, our security director had evacuated the compound, and it was overrun by Taliban. I just didn't have the protection that I needed. It was just the right decision for me to make.

Criticism of the U.S. withdrawal

I’m critical the way the U.S. withdrew. It was sudden. Plans clearly were not put in place. Our allies were not prepared for it. I was preparing for it for six months, and I was caught off guard. The rapidity of it and the lack of planning, and lack of foresight just has knocked everybody off their center.

About PARSA’s work, and the people who support it

One of the most remarkable accomplishments over the past decade has been that we've relaunched the Afghan Scouts program. I happened to meet, about a decade ago, two men whose dream was to rebirth the Afghan Scouts program, Tamim and Mustafa. They had been trained by the World Organization of the Scout Movement.

We grew that to a national program in 34 provinces. We have about 10,000 scouts around the country, run by 600 scoutmaster volunteers. Tamim is now my deputy director. What the scouts accomplish across the country —particularly their focus on community service — is just remarkable. Those are the people I work with.

One of the things that happened last week

Tamim was watching this devolution of his country, and the politics. On his way home, he went by a park where there were just these displaced people from the provinces who came out of conflict and fled to Kabul for safety. He came in the next morning and just broke down and cried with me. Then, within about an hour and a half, he pulled his volunteer scoutmasters together. He’d gone into our warehouse where we had all of our camping equipment. He had about 50 people out washing scout tents and putting together equipment.

By the next day, he had organized with another group and set up what we are now calling a "family village" for 40 families, and started moving in humanitarian supplies. The staff actually reached into their own pockets to pay for the first water, food, hygienic supplies for these families — which an extraordinary response in the middle of so much stress.

The future of PARSA

PARSA is going to continue. Yesterday, Tamim had his first series of meetings with the Taliban officials in different ministries. We're in the process (of) being vetted. Tamim just says ‘This is not going to fall. We are not going to stop. We are going to raise these children. We're going to make the scout program go.’

Will we have to adjust? Yes. I spoke to Tamim just this morning, which is his nighttime, after a very, very long, stressful day. He was just resolved. He said we can do this.

I’ll go back when I can. I’ll keep running PARSA. All of my colleagues are the same way. If they're leaving, they're leaving temporarily. It may change this week. It may change next week. There are people that are fine. There are people that are just keeping their heads low.

But it’s a very, very frightening situation there with Taliban in the streets. There's what the leadership says and then there's what these soldiers do on their own without a lot of management to the population, and this is a pretty brutal group.

Marnie Gustavson let us know this morning that PARSA has been issued their NGO registration letter under the new government. That gives them protection, and permission to begin programs again. She says Tamim will be reopening PARSA, cautiously, this coming Sunday, with Afghan Scouts in the streets of Kabul delivering supplies to displaced people.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above

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Extended Interview With Marnie Gustavson

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