She returned to the NW when the Taliban took power. Now she's back in Afghanistan — by choice
Marnie Gustavson is the executive director of PARSA, a non-profit organization based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She was born in Seattle, and has a home in Port Orchard. As a child, she lived in Afghanistan with her family.
Part of PARSA's mission is to train and support a nationwide scouting organization, which serves 10,000 girl and boy scouts. Like other scout groups around the world, Afghan scouts plan and carry out community projects, like tree planting, neighborhood clean-up, and library donations.
Gustavson had just evacuated from Afghanistan when KUOW spoke to her last August after the government fell. Recently, she returned to Kabul to continue leading PARSA. KUOW’s Kim Malcolm reached out to her for this update.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Kim Malcolm: You decided to go back to a country generally considered to be a failed state. The Taliban is now in control. I'm wondering how you made the decision to return?
Marnie Gustavson: I've lived and worked here for 18 years. Prior to the fall of Kabul in August, NGOs like PARSA were all anticipating working with the Taliban. The plans for coming back have been part of my strategy for a couple of years. We didn't anticipate the complete collapse of President Ghani’s administration.
The headlines we're seeing here about Afghanistan center on the economy, which appears to have pretty much collapsed, and on growing widespread hunger. What kinds of conditions are you seeing on the ground?
I'm in Kabul, which is different than the provinces. The provinces are the places that are hardest hit. It's true, and it's getting worse. The Afghan people are resilient. There are different ways that they're managing it. I'm not minimizing the crisis, but I'm heartened by what I see as the strength and the resilience of the Afghan people.
Can you give us an example of someone or some situation that is bringing you some hope right now?
Yesterday, a scoutmaster from a northern province called our scouts and said, 'I have this family here in my community, a father who has cancer. He is going to have to sell his daughter to feed the rest of his children.' My team mobilized. They checked it out, made sure that it was actually a true story, and working through the scoutmaster was able to deliver food today. What was most heartening about that is that it's Afghans taking care of Afghans, rather than just this large humanitarian push.
You have permission to operate under the Taliban administration. Has that changed things at all for the scouts and their programs?
It's been nominal. Pretty much the changes that we've experienced are that I've had to separate male staff and female staff, and I operate the programs gender-specifically. Everybody, including me, is wearing more conservative dress. That's pretty much the extent of how things have changed other than the situation in Afghanistan, where cash flow and the economy are so difficult.
I know there have been protests lately by women demanding their rights. Do you have hope that they'll be able to be safe and have a life for themselves under this new regime?
I do. I absolutely have hope that women and girls will be able to fully be part of the public sphere and be able to have the right to education and to work. You might say that over the last 15-20 years the international community really put the pressure and provided the way for women to come into modernity, for women to be able to access education. One of my staff members today said, our girls and our women have rights by Islam and the Taliban are going to be held to account for that.
What kind of role do you think the United States and the international community should be playing right now when it comes to Afghanistan?
It's really difficult for me to say. I can say this. Taliban are who are here. We need to support the Afghan process of re-establishing the government. I'm an American. One day, the Taliban were my enemy. In the next week, they were my neighbors, and I had to work with them.
The most immediate thing is to find a way to get cash into the country, which the U.S. is working on, along with other international countries, not just for humanitarian purposes, but so that people can get jobs and go back to work.
Is there anything else that you want our listeners to know, about the Afghan people and the situation there?
My staff said to me, 'you came back, you came back, why did you come back?' And I said to them, you're worth it, you're worth for me to come back. The ordinary Afghan people, like the ordinary U.S. citizen, are different than the politics, and I appreciate if people would remember that.
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