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Washington woman returns to Afghanistan to continue aid mission in nation stalked by hunger

Kam Air (Digitalmarketing111/WikiCommons)

In early November, Washington native Marnie Gustavson returned to Kabul, where she has lived and worked for more than 15 years.

Gustavson is the executive director of PARSA, a nonprofit that assists Afghan women, children and the disadvantaged. She had left Kabul in August, just before the Taliban takeover. And, after a restless few months in the Puget Sound region, Gustavson went back to help get the group up and running at a time of desperate need in Afghanistan.

By the time she arrived, about 20 of PARSA’s 120 Afghan staff had left for Pakistan, a first step in an effort to get visas that would enable them to resettle in the U.S. More wanted to leave and sought financial assistance from PARSA, which stands for Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan.

So Gustavson held a meeting to convey a blunt message. She had compassion for those seeking to depart their homeland, and wrote letters of referral to the U.S. State Department for those who requested them. But it was uncertain if — and when — any of those visas would come through for people in Pakistan. And, the nonprofit would prioritize spending on mothers with hungry children, and others stuck in Afghanistan amid the economic implosion that followed the U.S. withdrawal. For those who opted to stay with PARSA, that’s where their focus needed to be.

“I said, ‘this is a new opportunity for us,’ ” Gustavson recalled. ” ‘You guys need to get reorganized. You are some of the few people in Afghanistan with jobs.’ “

Since then, few staff have left, and PARSA has stepped up operations including leading Scout troops of boys, and some girls, in putting together aid packages of rice, beans, oil and other foodstuffs. And, at the PARSA campus in Kabul, some 60 teenage girls are once again attending technology and sewing classes.

PARSA is regrouping at a difficult and politically sensitive time for the more than 180 international aid organizations that have been operating in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s rise to power has raised new questions about how freely U.S. aid groups can operate in Afghanistan, and what programs won’t run afoul of their doctrines. Expanding educational opportunities for girls, for example, has been one big goal of international aid to Afghanistan, while the Taliban have sharply restricted girls’ access to middle schools, high schools and universities.

There are also security concerns.

In the year before the Taliban took over, there were targeted killings of activists and others pressing for a more open society. And since they returned to power, Human Rights Watch has documented the killing or disappearance of more than 100 police and intelligence officials who turned themselves in to Taliban forces. Adding to the mix, ISIS is still operating in Afghanistan and carrying out bombings.

One Northwest aid group, Mercy Corps, has put Afghanistan operations on hold to focus on the safety and well-being of Afghan staff members, said Christy Delafield, a spokesperson for the Portland-based organization. In a statement posted online, Mercy Corps stated “We will resume providing assistance as soon as it is safe to do so and we have more clarity of the operational context.”

Country in free fall

Afghanistan’s dire situation largely results from a drought that reduced harvests and the broader economic collapse in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. In Herat, one United Nations official recently found a young woman reduced to one meal of tea and bread a day, unable to breast-feed her infant, and a clinic reported a 50% increase in the treatment of malnourished children.

“Afghanistan is in a free fall,” tweeted Martin Griffiths, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator, on Dec. 10. “Without more systemic and sustainable support, chaos will ensue.”

A recent U.N. report found 23 million people — more than half the population — face hunger, and 3.2 million face acute malnutrition.

Efforts to provide aid have been complicated by an implosion of the banking system that put sharp restrictions on cash withdrawals needed to pay staff. And the Taliban have been subject to long-standing international sanctions that prohibit financial dealings with them.

On Dec. 22, the United Nations Security Council and the U.S. Treasury Department loosened those sanctions to allow some financial transactions with the Taliban to help speed up the humanitarian assistance.

Some of this money is coming from the American taxpayer under a Biden administration effort to respond to the plight of the Afghan people.

The U.S. Agency for International Development since August has provided more than $208 million to assist in the relief effort with funds that flow through United Nations agencies as well as nongovernmental groups.

The U.N. World Food Program, with a staff of more than 500, is on the front lines of the effort to stave off famine with a massive outreach effort to deliver two months of food supplies, as well as cash and vouchers for local stores, to those in need.

The hunger is widespread across the country including in some of the cities that long enjoyed more prosperity.

“People are selling household items, and some have sold their children into early marriage,” said Shelley Thakral, a spokesperson for the World Food Program, which projects a need for $2.6 billion in 2022 to feed people in Afghanistan.

The suffering is expected to worsen during the cold winter months, and aid groups are scrambling to expand operations.

“Across the country, we are working to provide cash support to families who have been displaced, enabling them to purchase essential items such as food, travel, tickets back to their home provinces, medicine and emergency supplies,” said Nancy Dent, a spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee, which has some 1,200 staff in Afghanistan, 99% of whom are Afghans.

Federal Way-based World Vision is operating 14 mobile clinics focused on feeding malnourished children and responding to “urgent health needs,” according to spokesperson Nicole Harris, who said the organization plans to scale up food assistance “as we’re able to gain access to areas of greatest needs.”

Wary dialogue

PARSA is a small organization founded in 1996 during the first era of Taliban rule by Marty MacMakin, an American physical therapist. In an era when schools were open only to boys, she organized home schools for girls.

Gustavson spent much of her youth in Afghanistan, where her father taught school in Kabul in the 1960s. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001 she returned, eventually taking over PARSA in 2006.

Now, with the Taliban back in charge, Gustavson, an American woman, has entered into a wary dialogue with the new regime.

“It took me a little while to shift from they were my enemies to now they’re my protectors and my partners,” Gustavson said. “But I have done that. It’s kind of like moving into a village and meeting the elders and kind of sizing each other up and saying, ‘This is what I’m standing for, and this is what I want.’ … I’ve really been tested in terms of making sure, personally and professionally, that I’m on track with my own ethics and PARSA’s integrity in the face of this whole new reality … This is pretty complicated. I’m navigating a whole new landscape.”

The Taliban officials that Gustavson met with included Maulvi Matiul Haq, who had been a member of the negotiating team that met with U.S. officials in Doha. He now heads the Afghan Red Crescent Society, which owns the 20-acre tree-shaded campus where PARSA is located and Gustavson has a residence. And Haq now also lives and works on a separate part of the campus.

“He is an older gentleman. Very formal. And I went with two staff members and presented PARSA,” Gustavson said. “It was very practical — ‘How are we going to make this work?’ And he said, ‘We’re absolutely going to cooperate with you.’ “

One of PARSA”s signature programs has been support for Scout troops — comprising both boys and girls — that are now active in 34 provinces.

She hopes that the scoutmasters, many of whom are teachers, can help organize distribution of the food aid in some of the hardest hit regions of the country.

But under the Taliban, some changes to the Scout program are likely, including longer uniforms for girls and more separation of their activities from those of the boys.

In mid-December, Gustavson returned to Washington for the holidays and to be with a family member who needs surgery.

She plans to fly back to Afghanistan after the new year on Kam Air, an Afghanistan-based airline that has resumed passenger service to the Kabul airport that in August was the scene of the chaotic U.S. evacuation.

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