Amid the chaotic and tragic scenes in Afghanistan, as swathes of the population fled the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA, also known as the Taliban) to power, Dr Parnian Parvanta reflected on her very different exit from the country in 1990.
Unlike the uncertainty that Afghans are experiencing today, the eight-year-old Parnian was filled with excitement as she flew from Kabul International Airport to Delhi, India, before moving on to Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia. The last part of her journey was through the former East Germany into West Germany in June 1990, finally settling in Kaiserslautern. The Iron Curtain separating East and West had fallen only months previously in November 1989.
A refugee in Germany
Along the way, Parnian’s eyes were drawn to the straight boundaries of German fields, arranged like a chess board. “They were like someone had taken a ruler and just put in the lines. I’d seen the mountains of Kabul, but that’s it. I hadn’t seen these fields that looked they were drawn with a ruler before I came to Germany, as I hadn't really been outside of Kabul because of the war,” she remembers. Once settled in Kaiserslautern, she didn't think of Germany as her new home. As it turned out, it was. More than 30 years later, she is still based there and is now Deputy Chairwoman of MSF Germany’s board.
Having qualified as a doctor, she took her first overseas assignment with MSF in 2011 in the Central African Republic, before stints in India, Nepal and, more recently, as a specialist gynaecologist in Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
Following the withdrawal of foreign military forces in August 2021 and the Taliban toppling the incumbent Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani, Dr Parvanta’s attention has naturally turned to her country of birth. Her grave concerns for Afghans caught up in this tragic humanitarian crisis contrast with her relatively uneventful exit from the country. “I was in a safe bubble. My parents took care of me. As long as they were beside me, I knew things would be fine,” she recalls. “None of my closest family members were arrested or targeted, although there were some in my extended family that were. The path we took was so easy. You can’t compare it to what people are facing today. It’s unbearable to see people fleeing. They’re fleeing a situation which I think most of us can’t imagine.”
Concern for Afghans
Dr Parvanta fears for the women of Afghanistan. “I think that they’re losing hope, because they don’t know where to go next. In Afghanistan, I went to school and my mother was a teacher. But women now in Afghanistan, they don’t know how life will continue for them, whether they will be able to teach, to work, to send their daughters to school.”
The current situation is challenging for MSF too as the medical needs in its projects grow. Now that the fighting calmed down the people can reach hospitals again. Even last year, Dr Parvanta says that an attack on a maternity hospital resulted in mothers, babies and midwives succumbing to gunfire. The IEA denounced the attack and an MSF investigation found that Islamic State Khorasan Province were most likely responsible.
“But unfortunately, it has not been the only time a hospital, or a medical shelter to patients was a target in a conflict situation, not just in Afghanistan but also in other places we work, which is not just a challenge for us to guarantee the safety of our patients and our colleagues, but also a huge problem for the communities we serve, because if we decide to leave a place, it does have an impact on the people. The reason why we are in these places most of the time is because we’re able to respond to people’s medical needs that aren’t being met otherwise.”
Dr Parvanta is hopeful that those who have fled from the Taliban administration will be welcomed by countries like Germany that are able to provide support to refugees. Dr Parvanta spoke only Farsi when she first arrived in Germany, but she had a caring and supportive teacher who helped her learn a new alphabet and an unfamiliar language. It was one of the exceptional acts of kindness that she remembers from her childhood.
For her, there are parallels with what MSF is trying to achieve as a global organisation: to provide medical care to populations in distress and to address the inequalities in healthcare around the world, both brought into sharper focus by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are also advocating for fair global health, because how many vaccines are going to the Western world?”
Trust in social responsibility
Dr Parvanta does have faith in society at large, particularly the younger generations that appear more attuned to the plight of those who are oppressed and discriminated against. She also believes that COVID-19 has only fuelled these progressive agendas: “Young people are becoming more and more engaged. For climate change, for refugees and for Black Lives Matter – most of this is driven by young people,” she says. “This has helped me be less pessimistic. After 2020, seeing how many people have donated to MSF, to be honest, I didn’t expect that. I thought our donations would go down because everyone was afraid of losing their jobs.”
Dr Parvanta is also enthused by the evolution of ESG, in particular the attention paid to social responsibility by the business world: “I do believe that businesses become more attractive to people working with them, and for them, if they are more engaged.” She feels that this isn’t simply about making generous donations to charitable organisations like MSF, but about joining and promoting a conversation about the issues that MSF is looking to address. “A big company does have the possibility to help spread the message of our humanitarian work in a different way. It could be about the global distribution of medication, but also the price of medicines which is rising. In the past, HIV medication was not affordable for people who needed it, and an organisation like MSF cannot address this on its own. It needs support, and big companies have the possibility to bring attention to global health issues. So, I think it’s about more than just donating money.”
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