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Winning Asylum for Afghan Women

In May 2023, Vinson & Elkins representation helped two Afghan women win grants of asylum from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The attorneys who led this pro bono work — Associates Sarah McIntosh and Hannah Flesch, and Pro Bono Counsel Ellyn Josef — share the story with V&E+.

Two fearless women fleeing the violence of a war-torn country, risking it all in search of safe refuge and a better life. It’s a compelling story.

Ellyn: It really is. After the Taliban seized Kabul in August 2021, these women — sisters, in fact — fled to the city’s international airport, waiting for several agonizing, uncertain days before being evacuated by U.S. forces. A family member who had assisted the U.S. military during the War in Afghanistan was instrumental in helping the women avoid Taliban detection.

Most of us have seen the footage of chaos and panic sweeping the airport, but these women were in the center of it. And for the many thousands of brave Afghans who waited there as time ticked toward the withdrawal deadline, hoping and praying to be rescued, I’m sure it was more frightening than any of us here at the firm could imagine.

And the two people you worked with had even more reason to fear than most of their compatriots.

Ellyn: Right. They were university-educated women, public school teachers, and members of a family who had helped the United States and its Western allies — essentially, prime targets for harsh punishment under the newly installed Taliban regime.

To flee the only home you’ve ever known — and then to venture into the unknown through multiple countries in hopes of a new beginning — is brave in itself. But to do so under these circumstances was an act of extraordinary courage. It all took more than six months, including several living on a U.S. military base, but these women are now settled in a new home here in the United States, where they live with another family member who fled Afghanistan.

Your work played a major role in helping the women with their asylum applications. What challenges did you face there?

Sarah: Well, I should emphasize that any challenges we faced pale in comparison to those faced by these women. But for me, one of the toughest challenges was preparing them for their asylum interview.

There was a deeply emotional component to this. These women had endured a harrowing experience, and we then had to ask them to relive these moments in excruciating detail — all to ensure they were able to answer any question that could arise in the interview, especially those covering sensitive issues.

Hannah: Agreed. That wasn’t easy for us, and I know it was infinitely harder for them. Another challenge that stood out involved the application process itself. It’s complex and bureaucratic — and difficult for anyone to understand, especially for non-English speakers.

We helped the women understand the process and guided them through it, explaining throughout that success was no guarantee, even with their compelling cases. But through it all, they persevered, were a delight to work with, and couldn’t have been more appreciative of our efforts.

You must have found a lot of meaning in this work.

Sarah: We did. These women risked torture and death for a chance at a better life. And seeing their excitement and relief upon receiving their grants of asylum — knowing they no longer had to worry for their safety — was a beautiful, heartwarming moment.

As attorneys, we always feel a sense of accomplishment when a matter resolves favorably for our clients. But to advocate on behalf of people in great need — to see the power of a positive outcome at a deeply human level — well, that’s about as meaningful as work can be for me.

Hannah: Absolutely. It was an honor to represent these women, and empowering them to begin a new life is up there with the most fulfilling experiences of my legal career so far. When you grow up in the United States, it can be easy to take the freedoms we have here for granted, and I’m so happy that our clients will now be able to share in them, too.

Meet Sarah McIntosh and Hannah Flesch

  • Office: Washington, DC
  • Practice Area: Tax (Sarah); Environmental and Natural Resources (Hannah)
  • Law School: University of South Carolina (Sarah); Georgetown (Hannah)
  • Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina (Sarah); Rockville, Maryland (Hannah)

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.