Making a Positive Impact Together
May 08, 2024 - MoFo Diversity, MoFo Pro Bono

Empowering Voices: The Story of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music

symphony of courage

On April 30, 2024, MoFo partner and global co-chair of the Investigations + White Collar Defense practice group Carrie H. Cohen and associate Sabreena Khalid in MoFo’s Finance Group spoke with Lesley Rosenthal, president of the Friends of Afghanistan National Institute of Music (“ANIM”) and Chief Operating Officer and Corporate Secretary at Juilliard, as part of an event sponsored by MoFo’s Women’s Strategy Committee and the Middle Eastern North African (MENA) network in our New York office.

ANIM was founded in 2010 by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast. It was the first and only school of music in Afghanistan where talented Afghan children of all backgrounds were trained in a co-ed program in traditional and western classical music. They also obtained high-quality academic education and there was a special focus on supporting disadvantaged children, including orphans and child laborers. Boys and girls, from all ethnic backgrounds and communities, were welcome.

Event attendees had the opportunity to watch Symphony of Courage, a 30-minute documentary about ANIM. Challenging the Taliban’s ban on secular music and women’s and girls’ education, Dr. Sarmast joined forces with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma to evacuate students of the music school, including Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra, Zohra. ANIM successfully airlifted its 273 students, faculty, and staff and has since reconstituted in Braga, Portugal.  After the film screening, Lesley shared her first-hand experience with supporting this humanitarian effort.

The event had special significance as MoFo’s assistance to helping Afghan refugees obtain United States citizenship is among the largest pro bono undertakings in firm history. Sparked by an in-house webinar about Afghan refugees in 2021, nearly 200 lawyers and staff volunteered to conduct detailed intake interviews for Afghans, whose urgent calls to the refugee assistance agency Human Rights First had overwhelmed the organization’s resources—assistance the group called “a literal lifesaver.” These MoFo volunteers conducted 150 screening interviews. Nearly 50 firm lawyers were so moved by the stories they heard that they began representing Afghan refugees seeking asylum or other routes to permanent resettlement. Summer associates joined in by filing 50 green card applications for additional clients referred by Human Rights First. Lawyers in our London and Berlin offices began helping Afghan refugees as well. To date, the firm is representing 14 Afghans and their many family members in their quest for legal status in the United States. While some applications are still pending, most of these clients have been granted asylum.

MoFo has also assisted these refugees through shorter-term clinics sponsored by Project Afghan Legal Assistance. With our help, a number of refugees have been able to file robust asylum applications even without being fully represented by an attorney. We have also begun full representation of several families in this second wave of Afghan asylum-seekers. 

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