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Originally published December 8, 2012 at 6:56 PM | Page modified December 11, 2012 at 10:57 AM

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Seattle woman fights to help Afghan orphans

Marnie Gustavson, a woman from Seattle who lived in Afghanistan as a girl and never lost her love for that nation, has worked there over the past eight years helping women and children and fighting to root out corruption in long-neglected government orphanages.

Seattle Times staff reporter

About this story

Funding for international reporting by The Seattle Times is provided by a grant from the Seattle International Foundation.

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KABUL — Marnie Gustavson called Abdullah the "youngest Taliban," an 11-year-old orphan caught trying to detonate an explosive-filled vest.

Once he was released from custody, no one knew quite what to do with the unpredictable youth. He was tossed out of a group home and ended up sleeping at a security-guard shack.

That's when Gustavson recruited him to help at PARSA, the Kabul-based organization she leads that advocates for orphans.

Some days, Abdullah appeared eager to move in a new direction.

He would bring Gustavson gifts of freshly picked apricots, tidy her office and nestle his head in the crook of her neck as she worked at her desk.

Abdullah wanted to improve his computer skills and learn English. He yearned to adopt a small black dog, part of a menagerie that Gustavson had rescued from the streets of Kabul.

On other days, the flash of Gustavson's earrings would set Abdullah off in a different direction. He would denounce her decorative wear as forbidden by the Koran, and repeatedly try to steal a mobile phone so he could contact his terror cell.

Some four months after he started helping out at PARSA, Abdullah decided to rejoin the Taliban. He slipped away and was last seen hiking up a nearby mountain in the company of the small black dog. A few months later, Gustavson learned that a young boy killed himself in a suicide attack, and she could only hope that the body parts found at the scene did not belong to Abdullah.

"He could be a bright, loving child," says Gustavson. "But then he would just flip into a killing mode and say, 'Oh, you're an infidel.' "

Abdullah's disappearance was a humbling example of the treacherous terrain that Gustavson has navigated since leaving Seattle eight years ago to assist women and children in the aftermath of Taliban rule.

For Gustavson, 56, that move was a kind of homecoming. She spent four years of her youth in Kabul while her father taught school, and the memories of her Afghan childhood haunted her through much of her adult life.

While many aid specialists rotate through postings in Kabul, Gustavson has put down roots as the executive director of PARSA (which stands for Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan), a service organization that employs some 60 Afghans in the capital and several provinces.

Under Gustavson's guidance, PARSA has trained social workers to assist traumatized children, offered literacy courses for women, and financed kitchen gardens for widows to boost their incomes. It has also gone into government orphanages to revive Afghanistan's long moribund scouting program for boys and girls.

But a hallmark of PARSA's work is the battle against dismal conditions and corruption in Afghanistan's troubled government orphanages.

Destitute children

Some 8,500 children live in more than 30 of these orphanages spread through Kabul and most of the nation's provinces. About half of the children have no parents; the others typically have widowed mothers who can no longer care for their children.

Some might otherwise end up on the streets or possibly be drawn to militant madrassas in Pakistan, where religious training mixes with pitches to join the Taliban.

After years of civil war and Taliban rule, many of the orphanages ended up in a miserable state.

During some initial investigations in Kabul, PARSA workers documented children sleeping in chilly, unheated buildings without glass in the windows. When staff members blocked them from using malfunctioning toilets, children defecated in the courtyard.

Gustavson sought donations to improve the Kabul orphanages. But the donated blankets, electric heaters and even 175 toothbrushes quickly disappeared, stolen by underpaid staff.

PARSA staff also learned that security guards at Kabul's Tahya-e-Maskan orphanage had arranged for boys to leave at night to dance for men in parties that often ended in sexual abuse. The practice is known as bacha bazi, or "boy play," and since the fall of the Taliban it has spread through much of Afghanistan.

Afghan ministry officials initially refused to believe that orphanage boys were being sent to dance. Eventually, a PARSA investigator secured a video of a Tahya-e-Maskan boy at a bacha-bazi party. The orphanage director got sacked, and the security-guard system was overhauled.

"The thing I have going for myself is tenure. You can't get this done if you are only here for a short period of time. They will just try to wait you out," Gustavson said. "But we're not going away."

Gustavson's efforts to improve the orphanages have not always been well received by government officials. Back in 2007, she presented Afghan ministry officials with a harsh report on a problem-plagued girls orphanage in Kabul, and called for an official government investigation.

The blunt comments from an American woman heading up an Afghanistan-based NGO rankled a ministry official, who turned the meeting into an attack on PARSA, prompting Gustavson to walk out.

"She is calling them out on ethics and saying shame on you," said Suzanne Griffin, a Seattle woman who has spent the past decade working on education and other development programs in Afghanistan. "Some people are grateful for what Marnie is doing. But some people hate it."

Last year, PARSA gained a key ally in its reform efforts when Sayyid Abdullah Hashemi was appointed to lead the National Directorate of Orphanages.

Thin and austere, Hashemi grew up as an orphan himself. He's emerged as a gruff crusader, lashing out at corrupt officials and reaching out to the children with a mix of hugs and tough love.

Hashemi initially didn't know what to make of PARSA, viewing its staff as potential rivals who might plot against him. But the relationship warmed as PARSA staff briefed him on problems they uncovered and rallied support for his efforts to improve the orphanages.

Hashemi has his office in Tahya-e-Maskan, the same Kabul orphanage where PARSA once discovered the boys being sent out to dance.

At this orphanage, he has made a big impact, securing U.S. government funds to renovate battered dormitories that house more than 600 boys. He also has improved the children's schooling, with dozens now heading off to universities and some even studying abroad.

"Here, we have a future," said Ahmad Fareed, 13, who wants to become an engineer.

Happy days in Kabul

Gustavson first came to Afghanistan in 1964 when her father, Frank Hartung, left Seattle to teach biology and math at an international school in Kabul. She was 9, the eldest of three sisters.

The government, led by King Zahir Shah, was experimenting with a new era of liberalization. Women could stroll the streets without a burqa or a headscarf, and some attended universities to become doctors and lawyers.

Gustavson recalls Christmas dinners at the U.S. Embassy, where you entered by knocking on the door rather than making your way past blast walls and metal detectors. She biked about the city and explored the countryside on weekend trips with her family.

In 1969, the family returned to the U.S. For Gustavson, who attended high school in the Seattle area, the readjustment to America was turbulent.

"I had this very rich experience of the world. And, it was gone," she said. "Nobody knew how to talk with me about where I had been. I was just supposed to fit in. I was horribly homesick for Afghanistan."

Gustavson married and raised two children. While living in Seattle and later Port Orchard, she worked with a nonprofit that helped women on welfare find work.

In 2003, after the fall of the Taliban, Gustavson finally returned to Kabul with her old classmates. The school she had attended was a bombed-out shell with a Soviet tank flipped over outside the front gate. The city was swollen with refugees, many from conservative rural areas. When she and her friends ventured out into the streets in Western clothes, men chastised them.

She returned several more times, doing some training and contract work.

Eventually she convinced her husband, Norm Gustavson, a psychologist, to make a permanent move to Kabul.

It was a chance to reconnect to some of her happiest times and help a country close to her heart.

"I loved it. There was this new spirit of hope, and I was inspired by people's ability to survive," Marnie Gustavson recalls.

The couple found lodging with Mary MacMakin, an American physical therapist who had founded PARSA in 1996. Through the Taliban era, MacMakin and her Afghan staff organized secret classes for up to 1,200 girls in more than 40 home schools.

MacMakin had been forced to leave the country in 2000. She took refuge in Pakistan before reopening PARSA's office in Kabul once the Taliban were routed by NATO forces.

After Gustavson arrived in Kabul, MacMakin eventually decided to let go of PARSA.

By then, girls in the city had begun attending schools again, and Gustavson searched for new areas of focus.

She turned her attention to orphanages after meeting with Seattle's Betty Tisdale, a longtime supporter of PARSA.

Tisdale runs her own nonprofit, HALO, that helps poor children around the world. She supported PARSA's involvement in the Afghan orphanages and offered donations that included handmade quilts.

When the quilts disappeared within days from the children's dormitories, Gustavson figured that charity alone wouldn't make much of a difference in the lives of these orphans.

"The problem was the corruption. It was very well established," Gustavson said.

Place of refuge

PARSA offices are tucked inside a 20-acre campus owned by the Afghan Red Crescent Society. This campus also houses a group home for families of widows and a shelter for handicapped Afghans.

If not for the sounds of gunfire from a nearby police-training academy, visitors might feel like they have arrived at a tranquil country estate. Young girls stroll hand in hand down a tree-lined lane. PARSA staff tend a big garden plot that yields tomatoes, squash and other vegetables.

Gustavson and her husband live nearby in an old house, where they sometimes entertain friends over home-baked pizza on a veranda that offers sunset views of the mountains ringing Kabul.

Her home is filled with barks and howls from dogs she has rescued from the streets of Kabul. Over the years, she also has taken in cats, goats and even an abused donkey. More recently, space next to the house was ceded to a spay, neuter and vaccination clinic operated by Nowzad, an animal-rescue organization.

But the work of PARSA is at the center of her world.

And keeping it afloat is a high-wire juggling act.

The organization receives about $500,000 in funding each year. Some money comes from small donors, such as a group of retired teachers from Puget Sound. Over the years, much of the money has come from foundations and from government institutions such as the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Finding enough money to cover overhead and salaries is a constant struggle. Many of PARSA's longtime staffers have sacrificed to stay with the organization, sometimes going weeks without a paycheck or enduring layoffs. Last year, PARSA suffered a serious setback when Gustavson failed to keep current on tax filings and the Internal Revenue Service revoked the organization's nonprofit status.

"This was poorly overseen, and I certainly take responsibility for this," Gustavson said. "We have since filed all those returns and are working to get our nonprofit status back."

"Just like a zoo before"

As conditions have improved at the two large government orphanages in Kabul, the reform efforts have reached farther into the provinces. Two years ago, for example, the Afghan Institute of Learning, an Afghan nonprofit, went into the orphanage in the northwest city of Herat to improve education and living conditions there.

"It was just like a zoo before. But now, it is completely different," said Dr. Sakeena Yacoobi, the organization's leader, who has earned international recognition for her education work.

At PARSA, Yasin Farid, a soft-spoken physical therapist who is the organizations's national director, has led investigations in the provinces.

He uncovered some of the worst abuses last December when he traveled to an orphanage in Fayzabad in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. He found 60 boys living in just a couple of rooms that lacked heat, window panes or even solid walls.

Their main meal was a miserable, watery soup that contained only an ounce of beans — rather than 7 ounces, the standard allocation — and the children appeared emaciated.

Farid called Hashemi, the crusading official in Kabul, and asked him to come to Badakhshan to inspect the orphanage. Then, in an incident chronicled in a front-page article in The New York Times, Hashemi says, he threw a bowl of the soup in the face of the orphanage director and tried to fire him.

The director responded that he wasn't going anywhere because he had friends in government. After The New York Times story was published, Hashemi says, several armed men showed up at his house with guns, but backed off when neighbors intervened.

"They said they were to kill me, but I am not afraid of them," Hashemi told The Seattle Times. "My life is given to me by God, and one day it will be taken away from me by God. I won't stop working for the children."

In Badakhshan, conditions appear to have improved since Hashemi's visit. He attributes the improvements to a children's committee vested with the authority to watchdog the facility and call whenever there is a problem.

"Now, they have their food and they have their voices. And when they raise their voices, something happens," Hashemi said.

Earlier this year, Hashemi had concerns about a orphanage in Mazar-i-Sharif, a bustling city in northern Afghanistan. That orphanage was built in 2007 with U.S. taxpayer funds and has space for 100 children. But it has only 60. Hashemi wanted to know why.

In September, Farid, accompanied by a reporter from The Seattle Times, went up to Mazar-i-Sharif to investigate.

Farid found the orphanage to be a well-run facility built around a central courtyard where the kids slept in metal bunk beds during the summer heat.

"It's the best place I have ever been. We feel we are a big family, and our teachers are our fathers and mothers," said Fayezullah, an 18-year-old who came to the orphanage after his father died of cancer.

The director is Rohafza Akbary, a woman whose independence is underscored by her decision to own and drive a car.

Akbary, a former teacher, told Farid that she would be happy to accept at least 40 more children if she could.

"We have room. But we don't have the staff or money to take care of them," Akbary said. "We have a waiting list of 300 children who want to get in."

Most of those children are girls.

That poses another problem because the orphanage lacks separate facilities for girls. So far, Akbary has been able to accommodate eight. On the day of the visit, those girls locked themselves inside a room to protect their privacy.

Farid offered to help Akbary with training. Then he briefed Hashemi on his findings.

"A lot of people, they think change is not coming," Farid said. "I feel very strongly — if you want to make change, you need to go and see what's going on, and talk about it — report it to other people."

More struggles ahead

In the next few years, as most U.S. troops and contractors depart from Afghanistan, Gustavson plans to stay put in Kabul.

She's prepared for a future that could become increasingly unstable.

In April, she and her husband had a close encounter while helping chaperone 90 Scouts on an outing to a Kabul park, just as insurgents were launching a major attack on nearby government buildings. The Taliban are hostile to the scouting program, which they view as a foreign ideology. So Gustavson and the PARSA staff quickly stripped the uniforms off the Scouts, then rushed them to the shelter of a nearby orphanage.

The children were so close to the fighting that they picked up shell casings as souvenirs.

"This is the kind of thing that takes years off your life," Gustavson said.

But it is America, not Afghanistan, that leaves Gustavson most ill at ease.

When she returns to visit her mother and father in Port Orchard, she feels more and more like a stranger, overwhelmed, for example, by the vast choices at a local supermarket.

"I have to tell my poor mom that my daily life, my clothes, my family are in Afghanistan. This is not home anymore."

In Afghanistan, Gustavson is hopeful for more changes in the orphanages.

Since so many of these children still have their mothers, she has proposed turning orphanages into government shelters that allow families to live together. Some of the mothers could staff the shelters while others might do outside work to help defray expenses.

Already, some orphanages employ widows who workday shifts and return to other residences at night.

"We hope that we can have more of those places. We need them," said Latifah, a woman who lost her husband 14 years ago in a Taliban attack and now works at the Mazar-i-Sharif orphanage. "The Afghan women are brave women and able to work."

Hashemi supports the idea. But in a nation where some government officials link women living in groups to prostitution, it is still controversial.

Gustavson is undeterred.

"We need to transition children out of orphanages. We need a new model," Gustavson said.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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