‘I couldn’t say no’: Selendy Gay co-founder’s Afghanistan rescue effort

A girl sits outside a bakery in the crowd with Afghan women waiting to receive bread in Kabul, Afghanistan January 31, 2022. REUTERS/Ali Khara

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(Reuters) – When Jennifer Selendy heard about the plight of hundreds of at-risk girls in Kabul, Afghanistan, after the Taliban took over last summer, she knew she wanted to help.

The question was how.

The co-founder of Selendy Gay Elsberg, 50 lawyers, told me that her “first thought was that I would make my partners give a lot of money.”

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But she soon realized that donations alone would not be enough to solve the problem. Instead, she embarked on a complex rescue effort, drawing on her organization-building skills honed when she was co-associate director at Selendy Gay following her split from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in 2018.

Recently returned from a nine-day trip to Pakistan, Selendy told me about her efforts to help 450 girls and community members affiliated with Marefat High School in Kabul, where almost half of the students are girls.

“I couldn’t say no,” Selendy said of her ongoing work with the 30 Birds Foundation to evacuate schoolgirls and resettle them in Saskatoon, Canada.

Inspired to act on a plea from an alumnus of Tufts University, Selendy said the company “fell into my lap at a time when I didn’t have time”.

Selendy Gay Elsberg co-founder Jennifer Selendy welcomes Afghan students and their families to Canada. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Selendy)

A complex commercial lawyer, Selendy’s work has included representing McKinsey & Co. in precedent-setting litigation involving Chapter 11 disclosures and pursuing an antitrust action on behalf of Discover Financial Services against Visa and MasterCard that reported to his client a settlement of $2.75 billion.

She and her husband, Philippe Selendy, a partner named Selendy Gay, are also the parents of two teenagers.

The schoolgirls’ plight “really resonated with me as a woman,” she said. “The Taliban reflects to me the sum of all misogynies.”

The Taliban prohibits the education of girls beyond the age of 11, and many Marefat schoolgirls, who are members of the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, feared they would be forced to “marry” Taliban fighters, Selendy said. Other girls at the school, including a group of singers who have appeared on national television and martial artists who have competed internationally, have received death threats, she added.

With much of the world’s attention focused on the conflict in Ukraine, Selendy is determined to ensure that the last group of around 170 girls, their family members and attendants now stranded in a hostel on the outskirts of Islamabad can complete their journey to Canada.

Their safety “worries me every day”, she said.

She became involved in the rescue through the Institute for Global Leadership at her alma mater Tufts University, where she serves as vice chair of the institute’s board of trustees. Tufts alumnus Abuzar Royesh, whose father founded the Marefat School, turned to members of the institute for help when Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021.

A small multinational group of journalists, authors and graduate students – “eight amateurs with a strong will to do something”, as Selendy put it – came together via Zoom and WhatsApp to try to bring the girls, who range in age from 12 to 24, outside of Afghanistan.

They first focused on trying to get the group out of Kabul before US troops withdrew in late August, then tried to charter a flight out of Mazar-i-Sharif.

When these efforts proved unsuccessful, 30 Birds team members were able to use their connections to help the girls and their escorts gain clearance to enter Pakistan overland.

In September and October, the first 250 evacuees arrived in Saskatoon, where Selendy said they were thriving.

But the rest of the group is stuck in limbo in Pakistan, waiting for Canadian visas and running out of money to complete their trip. Selendy and the other 30 Birds members have been busy fundraising, bringing in $3 million to date, but are still $800,000 short of their goal.

When Selendy visited the 170-member group in Islamabad in mid-March, she was also able to meet Canada’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, stressing that girls and young women remain in a precarious position – strangers in a deeply conservative neighborhood.

Although it pained her to do so, Selendy told me that she advised the girls to start wearing burkas for protection.

But the real purpose of this trip, her first to Pakistan, was to remind the girls that they have not been forgotten and to offer whatever comfort she can. Selendy remembers “holding the girls in my arms and letting them scream” as they recounted how they had survived the bombings and refused arranged marriages on pain of being stoned to death.

A young woman in training to become a doctor said she hid in a hospital cupboard when the Taliban shot a doctor, Selendy said.

The work Selendy does isn’t pro bono per se, since she isn’t primarily acting as a lawyer. But she said that’s how she sees it in carving out time.

“I’ve always said ‘yes’ to supervising important pro bono cases that partners wanted to work on. I would find the time,” she said. “I treat this as a pro bono case of mine.”

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Jenna Greene

Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, the faces behind the cases, and the quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime columnist of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Contact Greene at [email protected]

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