YMCA global conversations: Afghanistan

Date: 31 August 2021

On Monday 30 August 2021 – a fortnight after the Taliban took Kabul, and as violence continued across the country – some 200 people from across the global YMCA Movement came together online to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and the region, and begin to chart how the YMCA should respond.

“Someone said to me last week, ‘Why don’t you mind your own business?’”, said World YMCA Secretary General Carlos Sanvee introducing the event, and acknowledging that YMCA does not have a presence in Afghanistan, though it is in Pakistan, China and nearby India. “To which I replied: ‘What is our business…?’ When people cry for justice, that’s our business. When young people’s futures are at stake, that’s our business.’  70% of the population of Afghanistan is under 25.

The meeting heard from two guest speakers, and four YMCA speakers.

Emma Leslie, founder-director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, described a situation in which over 100,000 people had been evacuated in recent days – “largely foreigners and those Afghans who could pay”, she said.  She decried how the names of those wanting to leave had managed to reach the Taliban, thereby endangering their lives if and when they were not able to leave. 

“Over 20 years and $2 trillion of expenditure, we have seen a massive industrial military complex built in the name of democracy” she said.  “Hundreds of thousands of people have been left very vulnerable, and we have seen that those who profess to protect people really can’t.  One of my conclusions is that movements of people are more to be trusted than states.” 

Alessandro Monsutti, Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, summarized the themes of his book Homo Itinerans: Towards a global ethnography of Afghanistan.  He shared that the Taliban seemed to have won a war of legitimacy – a war which had been lost by the internationally-supported Afghan government. Looking at the current evacuations, he felt that “we are all mobile, but clearly not to the same extent: we are in the most unequal world in human history”.  

He reflected that Afghan society in the 1990s – even in the absence of a state – was ordered, and that the state since 2001 had not been able to produce this order. He analysed shifting power and allegiances in a country in which “your enemy today could be your ally tomorrow”. The sources of power in Afghanistan straddled four networks, he said: trading links, Islamic links, migratory links, and humanitarian systems.

Rachel Rinaldo, senior director of YMCA of Greater New York and coordinator of a YMCA Movement-wide ‘Community of Impact’ on Refugees and Migrants which is a global platform for sharing best practice, continued. She spoke of the Community’s work in mapping the global YMCA’s work with migrants and refugees, improving it and accelerating it.  “I call on all YMCA National Movements to help their societies to eradicate anti-refugee thoughts and policies. As well as helping them as vulnerable people, we must see refugees as a source of strength and vitality”, she said.

In the same vein, Melanie Burns, Manager of Newcomer Support Services at the YMCA of Greater Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada, said “we are being taught as much as we teach”. She is directly engaged in welcoming Afghan refugees. “Our role at the YMCA is to be a good neighbour”, she said. ‘We must use whatever water we have in our buckets as wisely as we can: let’s put out the fires that are nearest to us.”


Emanuel Sarfraz, General Secretary of Lahore YMCA, Pakistan, discussed the fear of “a new wave of terrorism across Pakistan”, and called for more dialogue to build trust with refugees. Pakistan already houses 3 million Afghan refugees, he said, and could now see another 500-700,000.


Bertram Devadas, National General Secretary of The National Council of YMCAs of India, reflected on ways in which India already hosts Afghan refugees, and foresaw expanded possibilities in the areas of housing, education, inclusion (above all in the teaching of Hindi and English), and the provision of healthcare to refugees.

A debate followed, first on the legitimacy of the Taliban and how to interact with them, and second on how the YMCA should react regionally and globally, especially in the care of refugees and migrants.  

“We are a global YMCA Movement of people, and we are supporting the movement of peoples”, said Emma Leslie. “Our task is to give positive energy and reach out to people who feel terrible right now.”

Nam Boo Wan, Secretary General of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs, closed the meeting. “Nations will always follow their geopolitical interests”, he said, “but we in the YMCA are both trans-national, and local. We are civil society, so we must look at the roots of the problems in our society and societies, and address them there.”