A race against time: how Hogan Lovells volunteers have been helping the Afghan women’s cycling team
Efforts to secure evacuation of elite female athletes have featured 150-strong team working across nine time zones
When business lawyers talk about all-nighters it is usually in relation to deals.
Not on this occasion. In the immediate aftermath of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban last month, Washington DC-based Hogan Lovells partner Amy Roma recalls on one occasion being woken up at 3am by colleague Yasmin Waljee for advice on an urgent matter relating to the evacuation of at-risk Afghan women.
That telephone call triggered messages to other Hogan Lovells lawyers working with ‘activist, artist and producer’ Shannon Galpin to help members of the national Afghan women’s cycling team.
Fearful not just for their livelihoods, but also their lives following the collapse of the Afghan government, these athletes were in hiding, seeking help to escape the country.
“When Kabul fell it became obvious that there was no system in place for the evacuation and that in any event American citizens were the priority,” says Galpin, who spent more than a decade working to establish and support the Afghan women’s cycling team.
“There weren’t any Afghans on the State Department’s lists. Female judges, politicians, athletes and others were all in hiding, desperate to get to safety. I became part of an incredible constellation of people working together to try and create pathways for women at risk to be evacuated in a situation that changed and continues to change by the hour.”
The Hogan Lovells team of around 150 volunteers is part of that grouping. The firm has a longstanding relationship with Galpin, having previously provided pro bono advice to the cycling team. At the outset of the crisis, Waljee, who is international pro bono partner, got in touch with Galpin to offer the firm’s help.
In a fast-moving environment, when what rules and processes that do exist are constantly changing and can be derailed at any time by events on the ground, work supporting the evacuation was inevitably resource heavy and time-consuming.
“In those first couple of days I calculate that it took 15 hours of work involving 20 people to secure the successful evacuation of just one family,” says Galpin.
Click here to donate to Shannon Galpin's campaign to support the evacuation and resettlement of Afghan cyclists
Waljee says she is ‘humbled’ by the energy Galpin has devoted to the evacuation. In support of this work, Waljee and Roma liaise with Galpin and representatives of other non-governmental organisations, notably Shireen Irani, founder of UK-based iprobono. Tasks are then triaged across the firm’s network of volunteers.
“This project has involved us in collaboration across nine time zones with our global regulatory practices working at the interface with government and civil society,” says Waljee.
There are team leaders for key regions, including consultant and acquisition finance specialist Susan Whitehead in the UK, Munich-based partner Ina Brock, a litigation and crisis communication specialist, Milan-based banking partner Carlo Massini and Paris litigation partner Christine Gateau.
They and their teams have been helping to identify those in need of assistance, compiling and rationalising lists of these people and completing the necessary paperwork for their evacuation. They have also been conducting high-level advocacy work.
Roma explains: “We have been trying to help Shannon in her efforts on the government side, endeavouring to open doors that are closed and using our network of contacts to identify individuals who are able to help.”
While these efforts don’t directly relate to Roma’s day job as a regulatory lawyer practising nuclear and radioactive materials law, the insight she has gained into the workings of government during her years of practice has been important.
As a Washington-based professional, she is also able to draw on her network of contacts. And just as lawyers build their expertise through experience, a previous project Roma spearheaded has helped her tackle this latest assignment.
Last spring, she led a cross-practice pro bono team advising Kraft Group and the New England Patriots on obtaining government approval to deliver 1.3m masks from China using the Patriots’ plane. The Hogan Lovells team had to navigate a ‘complex array of authorisations and inter-governmental support requests’ at a time of crisis.
“There are certainly similarities with that project and we were able to draw on some of that,” says Roma.
Unsurprisingly, this latest initiative has had many setbacks. In an update on her fundraising page shortly before Kabul’s airport closed for good, Galpin complained that ‘the same planes we fought to get our cyclists onto the manifests for, left nearly empty because Afghans weren't allowed to enter the airport’.
However, 12 members of the national cycling team and many other athletes were successfully evacuated, scattered across various countries, including France, Germany, the UK and the US.
Work helping these evacuees has, of course, only just begun. For example, Waljee says: “Where we can, to support the programme, we are now introducing these incredible women to their local cycling clubs so they have some sense of continuity in this time of turbulence.”
In the meantime, efforts to help colleagues who didn’t make it out continue. And in an ominous development it has been reported today that Afghan women will be banned from playing sport under the new Taliban government.
The immediate crisis in the chaotic run up to the departure of the US troops and their allies may be over. But this is an assignment that is likely to run and run for Roma, Waljee and the Hogan Lovells volunteers. Just as it will for the numerous legal pro bono projects across the world that have sprung up to help deal with this unfolding humanitarian disaster.