Interview: Canadian Law Firm Partners Help Afghan Lawyers Flee Taliban

Months have passed since the Taliban reclaimed control of Afghanistan amid the chaotic final chapter of the United States’ 20-year war in the country. Yet many thousands of the Afghan citizens who provided critical assistance to Washington and other foreign governments and international organizations over the past two decades now find themselves targeted for this very work, and unable to evacuate. Visa-processing bottlenecks continue to swell as reports of Taliban rights abuses and food shortages proliferate. As many Western governments continue to puzzle over ways to assist, a growing number of private- and public-sector volunteers have risen up in hopes of providing the assistance these Afghan citizens so urgently need.

The Toronto-based firm Cassels, one of Canada’s largest corporate law firms, is taking action by advocating for a group of beleaguered lawyers and legal professionals in Afghanistan—employees of the Kabul-based corporate firm Shajjan & Associates, which had until this month counted the Canadian Government among its clients. The Canadian Government vowed to offer sanctuary to 40,000 Afghan refugees, but progress has been glacial. Cassels and other Canadian firms are endeavoring to offer meaningful assistance where the Government is falling short. To learn more about these efforts, JURIST Features Editor Ingrid Burke Friedman spoke with Kristin Taylor, Managing Partner at Cassels, and Carla Potter, partner and co-chair of the firm’s Corporate Responsibility Committee. 

JURIST: How did Cassels get involved in efforts to help Afghanistan’s lawyers after the Taliban regained power? 

Taylor: This issue struck a chord with me personally because, like a lot of Canadians, I sponsored a family of refugees from Syria to come here five years ago and they have become a part of my family. 

Kristin Taylor // Cassels

A couple of months ago, I was listening one morning to a news program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and the guest was Saeeq Shajjan, a corporate lawyer from Afghanistan. He had recently fled Afghanistan and was

discussing his plight. He described having gone through hell to get to Canada, and said he was still very worried for his colleagues. 

Given that I had some experience with refugees who have successfully settled in Canada, and the fact that Saeeq is a peer of mine, I thought perhaps I could offer some help. I found him on Twitter and sent him a direct message, making sure to explain who I was and send him a link to the Cassels website so he wouldn’t think I was just some random person. He reached out to me within a couple of hours, and we spoke that afternoon. 

Initially, I had intended to offer him advice about settling in Canada—advice on getting accredited to practice law here, getting his kids into school, the sort of things I knew how to do. But it quickly became clear that he wasn’t looking for help himself; he was solely focused on finding help for the people of his firm that he had left behind in Kabul. 

I reached out to the co-chairs of our Corporate Responsibility Committee, including Carla Potter, and our Asian Affinity Group, told them what I had learned from Saeeq, and asked whether they would be interested in helping develop a strategy to help them. Everyone was immediately on board, and Carla’s really taken the lead on the project for the past few months. 

I also reached out to Noble Chummar, one of our deputy managing partners who specializes in government relations.. Noble was able to connect our group with the Veterans Transition Network (VTN), an NGO that’s working on helping Afghan interpreters and translators evacuate. We spoke with them about what they have been doing on the ground. They have greatly assisted us in our efforts to develop a strategy to get these people out. 

JURIST: What are some key successes and key setbacks or obstacles you’ve faced since taking on these efforts? 

Potter: Unfortunately, our key successes thus far are limited. It’s not for lack of trying, or lack of financial or staffing resources.

Carla Potter // Cassels

When I first got involved in the project, I thought it would be fairly straightforward. Like Kristin mentioned, I thought we would be able to assist given our tools as lawyers, and the resources within the legal community. But it’s turned out differently than we initially expected. 

We started by gathering an army of volunteers who would call a government hotline that was established to determine [whether individuals are eligible for special visas by virtue of their work for the Canadian government; as mentioned above, Saeeq’s firm had been working with the Canadian government for years before he fled]. Our volunteers placed hundreds of calls in an effort to determine the statuses of the 38 colleagues, but they kept hearing that no information was available on these individuals. 

We quickly realized we would need to expand our efforts beyond phone calls, and started reaching out to Members of Parliament, and corresponding with various levels of government.  to understand how these cases generally work, and why these individuals weren’t obtaining any answers. 

We have also reached out to a number of other large law firms across Canada to seek assistance in our efforts, and to amplify our voice. There is understanding across the legal community of the danger these people are in, and the lack of progress. And unfortunately at this time, there have not yet been real, positive results in terms of them coming to Canada in the near term. 

JURIST: Has the Canadian Government made meaningful progress on its promise to offer sanctuary to 40,000 Afghan refugees?

Taylor: No. We have spoken with the VTN about this, and while the Canadian government has described the number of visa approvals they have issued, none of those seem to include either our people or VTN’s, or others who have gotten their [visa application] numbers. 

Most of the refugees that have have been brought to Canada—and they are a small fraction of the 40,000 promised—are from displaced persons camps, refugee camps outside of Afghanistan, where they were likely already located prior to August 2021 when the country fell to the Taliban. I’m not minimizing the experience of living in a refugee camp; but our work is focused on the people whose lives are in immediate danger because they have been members of a profession that is under attack in a Taliban-dominated country and, in the case of Sajjan & Associates, because they  represented Canada. So, it’s a different scenario. 

JURIST: In your view, what can and should the Canadian Government do to help people seeking to escape Afghanistan, and in particular, those who are looking to flee precisely because they helped Canadian government officials and firms in Afghanistan? 

Potter: The Canadian Government has made a commitment to assist 40,000 people. We promised the world we would. The Government also needs to understand the priority and urgency with which this needs to be done. Many of these individuals are at risk because of the work they did for Canada, so I really do feel like it’s our obligation to assist them on a priority basis. 

But also as Canadians, I think we should assist Afghans generally who have come into situations that we cannot comprehend since the Taliban took Kabul. 

Taylor: We do think there is a special obligation to the people who have been left behind, and whose lives are in danger because of the work they did for Canada. That’s why we are so interested in helping the employees of Shajjan & Associates. [Until very recently], they were still under contract with the Canadian Government, so they’re closely associated with Canada, and we know that their lives are at risk because of that association. 

These people put their lives on the line for us, and the fact that Canada has just left them there, and cannot seem to figure out a way to get them out, is reprehensible to me. It feels like we’ve asked so much of these people, and they were so committed to helping us, and so committed to the rule of law and other democratic values, and to just abandon them—to walk away—feels so fundamentally wrong. 

JURIST: Why exactly is the Canadian Government moving so slowly on this? In other words, what mechanism is missing or malfunctioning in the process to resettle those who have been left behind? 

Taylor: We’ve all been told different things. I have certainly heard from some of our sources that there is just an incredible bureaucratic backlog, that this is government inertia more than anything else. That’s all the more shocking when you think about the commitment we made to these people. 

When you make a commitment to 40,000 people, and you do not have the bureaucratic mechanism to actually make that happen—when you can’t even answer calls to share basic information about special immigration status, and you’re only responding with automatic responses—that’s outrageous. To me, the lack of ability to actually affect a commitment is shocking. It feels like [Canada] said we were going to do something we have zero ability to do, and people’s lives are in danger. 

Potter: Agreed. And honestly, even the most qualified visa applicants can’t get a “yes” or a “no.” We’re leaving them in limbo. They’re holding out hope, and rightfully so. I think it would be at least a starting point to begin assessing these applications on a priority basis, and for the Government to commit resources to actually affecting this promise, even if doing so would require significant resources. 

JURIST: Has this experience affected your views of what good lawyering is all about? 

Potter: It has reinforced my views about the will of the legal profession and the bar we belong to. We have watched colleagues from our firm, and our counterparts from firms that are our competitors for day-to-day business, come together, and unite in this collective effort for our profession. I think it’s a testament to Canadian lawyers, and to our profession as a whole. 

Taylor: I would just add to that, that as a managing partner it has been inspiring to see so many members from all different parts of the firm coming together for no other reason than because they share a commitment to helping our colleagues from halfway around the world. 

There are hard parts too. The fact that we haven’t yet been able to achieve success, combined with COVID and the holiday season, compounds stress. But still, as Carla said, it’s a real testament to the members of our communities, who have stepped up because of shared values. 

We went to law school to actually make a difference, and in a corporate law firm, sometimes you can get a little distanced from some of that, but this has really put a spotlight on an area where we hope we can help. That has been gratifying and frustrating and exasperating all at the same time. If we can just break down a bit of the bureaucracy, it will be a testament to our ability to achieve through our advocacy something that is at once very different from our day-to-day work, and incredibly rewarding.