In the wake of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, lawyers from Davis Polk and client Morgan Stanley joined together to help five Afghan students of the Asian University for Women (AUW) secure asylum in the United States. These young women were hurriedly evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan in the final days before the Taliban seized control over the country. Without the protection of asylum in the United States, they would be returned to Afghanistan, where they would be blocked from pursuing higher education and face persecution for their advocacy of women’s rights.

Today, all of the asylum petitions that the teams of Davis Polk and Morgan Stanley lawyers filed have been granted. As part of our long-term commitment to these clients, teams from Davis Polk are currently in the process of helping the women secure permanent residence by applying for green cards and travel documents.

We sat down with Erin Law, Roshaan Wasim and Despoina Arslanidi to discuss their work on these successful petitions.

Can you introduce yourselves and describe your respective roles at Morgan Stanley and Davis Polk?

Erin: I am an executive director in Morgan Stanley’s Legal & Compliance Division (LCD) and a member of its U.S. Litigation team. Our team handles civil litigation and regulatory matters on behalf of the firm’s Institutional Securities Group (which is comprised of sales & trading and investment banking) and the Investment Management businesses. I also serve as Pro Bono Counsel, which is a global role, and in that capacity I have responsibility for the development, oversight and management of LCD’s pro bono efforts, our pro bono philanthropy and selection of the firm’s co-sponsored Equal Justice Works fellows.

Roshaan: I am currently a fifth-year litigation associate at Davis Polk in New York focusing on civil litigation. My practice involves representing corporations, financial institutions and individuals in a variety of civil litigation matters in both federal and state courts, including complex commercial and contractual disputes, securities and shareholder litigation, and pre-litigation disputes.

Despoina: I am a corporate associate in Davis Polk’s London office, mainly advising on U.S. and international capital markets transactions and U.S. securities laws compliance and corporate governance.

Erin, can you tell us a bit about the beginnings of Morgan Stanley’s pro bono program?

Erin: We started doing pro bono at Morgan Stanley a little over ten years ago. One of the firm’s core values is “giving back” and in that spirit, several colleagues and I felt it would be sensible to offer lawyers and legal professionals in our division the opportunity to do pro bono legal work. Morgan Stanley offered plenty of general volunteering opportunities, but at the time those did not require the special skill set that lawyers and legal professionals have. We started small by collaborating with Davis Polk to run a pilot clinic at the City Bar Justice Center where veterans could apply for medical benefits, among other things. We also trained with and started taking on cases with Advocates for Children so that members of the division could assist special education students who needed legal services.

How did you become involved in working on the asylum petitions for Asian University for Women students? Was there anything in particular that drew you to this effort?

Erin: When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, I started to get requests from our attorneys to work on asylum cases right away. We had a number of years of experience working on asylum cases with Legal Services NYC, but never at the scale of the Afghanistan project. The AUW opportunity came to us from Olga Zeltser, a Managing Director at Morgan Stanley who serves on the board of the Asian University for Women. Through her board service, she became aware of students’ evacuation from Afghanistan and the pro bono coalition that was being organized to help students who were in the United States on humanitarian parole status. Olga reached out to me about the project, and I was thrilled when we had over 40 Morgan Stanley attorneys volunteer including many across the globe who are fluent in Dari and Farsi. Ultimately, dozens of law firms including Davis Polk joined in this herculean effort through that coalition, and Morgan Stanley attorneys assisted 19 students in applying for asylum.

Roshaan: As the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban swiftly took control over the country in August 2021, many people – myself included – were watching these events unfold with a feeling of helplessness. A few months later when the opportunity arose at Davis Polk to represent Afghans who had fled Taliban rule and were seeking asylum in the United States, it was a tangible way for me to play a small role in helping those who had been directly affected by the events in Afghanistan.

Despoina: I’ve always been interested in international and immigration law and human rights. When the Afghan refugee crisis broke out, I was looking for an opportunity to get involved. Once I became familiar with the tremendous work the Asian University for Women did to protect their Afghan students, I felt very proud and grateful for the opportunity to contribute to their efforts.

What was your experience participating in the asylum petitions? Were there any particularly memorable interactions or take-aways during your work on them?

Roshaan: Working with my clients to prepare their asylum applications involved many interviews and discussions over the course of several months, during which I personally gained a lot of knowledge about their lives in Afghanistan both before and after the Taliban takeover in 2021. This was an eye-opening experience in many respects; it is one thing to read about events in the news, and entirely another to hear the events narrated through the words of people who lived through those experiences. Though I enjoyed getting to know more about my clients through every interaction, one particular moment that stands out was receiving an excited call from a client whose asylum application had been approved after waiting more than one year for a decision.

Despoina: When working with asylum seekers, you need to really get to know and understand them, ask hard questions and live their experiences through their narratives. The strength and courage my client and other women in her place have demonstrated is unimaginable. The more I was working on her case, the harder I wanted to work to help her achieve justice. When my Afghan client’s asylum petition was granted, it was the most satisfying moment of my career.

Erin: It was an incredible gift for us to be able to help so many individual clients, working alongside colleagues at law firms and experts at Tahirih Justice Center. One of my colleagues captured it best: “The process has been both terrifying and rewarding. Terrifying because you literally are trying to save someone from a terrible fate (being forced to return to Afghanistan under the current regime), and yet rewarding because the opportunity to do this work reminds me why I became a lawyer in the first place – to make a positive difference.”

Erin, could you tell us a bit about Morgan Stanley’s other collaborations with Davis Polk?

Erin: Morgan Stanley and Davis Polk share a deep commitment to pro bono and have collaborated on a number of projects. Most recently, we participated together in a clinic for formerly incarcerated individuals in which lawyers advised clients on the employment seeking process, including their obligation to disclose past incarceration. We also jointly sponsor an Equal Justice Works fellow every two years to support recent law graduates pursuing careers in public interest work. Our most recent fellow works at The Door, an organization that provides comprehensive youth development services to young people in New York City. We also hope to coordinate a joint project to help unhoused children in New York as part of our commitment to supporting the communities around us.

More generally, what makes pro bono work meaningful to you?

Erin: I am grateful for the opportunity to give back, to learn something new and to collaborate in meaningful ways outside of my day-to-day practice with excellent lawyers at our partner law firms and legal service providers.

Roshaan: During my time at Davis Polk, I have been fortunate enough to do a range of pro bono work involving family law matters and criminal appeals. Not only has participating in pro bono work allowed me to gain a more diverse set of litigation skills, but the work is also very meaningful because it has direct and immediately perceptible impacts on our clients’ lives.

Despoina: Through my pro bono work at Davis Polk I’ve had the chance to work on asylum cases and human rights research, both of which relate to causes about which I am really passionate. Pro bono work makes me feel that I can actually touch peoples’ lives by helping them fight for their rights and achieve their dreams. It is extremely fulfilling and each case or project energizes me and encourages me to want to do more on the pro bono front.

Learn more about Davis Polk’s Pro Bono program.