Freshfields' pro bono partnership with ZAN e.V.
Empowering Afghan women in Germany
In the heart of Frankfurt, a dedicated group of women at ZAN e.V. are working to transform the lives of Afghan women who have faced unimaginable challenges in their homeland. Freshfields is proud to partner with ZAN e.V. to support their vision in helping Afghan women build self-determined lives in a new country.
A beacon of hope: ZAN e.V.'s mission
Established in 2001, ZAN e.V. is an Afghan women's association based in Frankfurt, Germany. Their mission is to empower Afghan women in the Rhine-Main region who have escaped tumultuous conditions in Afghanistan. Decades of war and instability have denied Afghan women and girls access to education and the chance to lead self-determined lives. ZAN e.V. aims to overcome these obstacles through educational programmes, including language training, IT lessons, training to improve craft skills such as textile design, and basic political education. Importantly, the organisation is the only one of its kind in Germany exclusively dedicated to supporting Afghan women. It operates in a non-partisan and non-denominational manner, focusing solely on education and counselling for Afghan women in Germany.
Freshfields' involvement in this worthy cause began when Bettina Schmaltz, a Counsel in the Frankfurt office, attended an event where Stefanie Then, a representative of ZAN e.V. delivered a moving speech titled ‘The Invisible Women from Afghanistan.' The speech highlighted the significant challenges faced by Afghan women and outlined ZAN e.V.'s remarkable efforts to alleviate their hardships. Stefanie Then noted how there is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting Afghan women, who have arrived in Germany in multiple waves in recent years. Many of the earlier influx of refugees from Afghanistan were well educated, while subsequent arrivals either have no educational background, or have diplomas that are not recognised, meaning those people cannot work in their area of expertise.
Inspired by the organisation's mission, Bettina offered legal assistance and encouraged a Freshfields team to support this project, recognising that navigating complex bureaucracy and administrative hurdles was a critical challenge that Freshfields could help address.
The pro bono legal help desk: bridging gaps
In March 2023, Freshfields established a legal helpdesk at ZAN e.V. premises, offering vital assistance to Afghan women. A dedicated team of associates, including Dari Persian speakers, provides invaluable assistance various issues:
- Navigating benefit transitions: Assisting Afghan women in accessing their benefits under the Asylum Act to SGB II after the completion of their asylum procedures.
- Job centre applications: Guiding women through the process of applying for various benefits.
- Healthcare support: Facilitating health insurance registrations, resolving account issues, and arranging medical appointments.
- Social housing applications: Helping Afghan women navigate the process of applying for social housing.
- Educational support: Assisting with applications for benefits from the ‘Education and Participation’ package.
- Maintenance and child benefits: Assisting in regulating maintenance advances and applications for child benefits.
- Communication with authorities: Supporting effective communication with authorities.
Many of the challenges these women face are rooted in language barriers and a lack of education. Seemingly straightforward administrative tasks can become daunting without proper guidance.
A personal touch: changing lives
Sohal Popal, a Freshfields volunteer at the legal help desk, is passionate about Zan e.V.’s work and Freshfields support: ‘I wholeheartedly believe in their mission to promote emancipation, education, and equality. By volunteering my time and expertise, I hope to play a meaningful role in empowering individuals, fostering educational opportunities, and advancing the cause of equality in our society.’
Freshfields’ legal assistance is just the beginning. If women face application rejections due to technicalities or misunderstandings, Freshfields provides additional legal counsel and collaborates with the relevant bodies to correct any errors. The goal is to reduce administrative burdens and ensure a smoother transition to a better future.
The dedicated team working on this project alongside Bettina includes Yalda Ahmadi, Miriam Dustmann, Ajla Friedrich, Catherine Mackensen, Sohal Popal and Eliah Raufi, all part of Freshfields' Frankfurt Dispute Resolution practice. Their collective efforts have made a significant impact, prompting discussions about expanding the scope of support provided to ZAN e.V.
The collaboration was deeply appreciated by ZAN e.V., who expressed their heartfelt gratitude: ‘Thank you so much for your commitment to us. We can't even put into words how much this means to us.’
Stories of resilience and transformation
One touching story involves a family’s challenging journey to reach Germany. They walked for three years through Turkey, surviving pushbacks in Greece, and eventually arriving in Germany. Their young son, traumatised by the journey, had suddenly and completely stopped speaking. Freshfields and ZAN e.V. promptly connected the family with an organisation specialising in traumatised children. After receiving treatment, the boy was enrolled in a program offered by schools that caters to non-German-speaking children, enabling him to access education. This transformation marked one of the program's most heart-warming success stories.
Another case concerned a dispute between a health insurance provider and a family, resulting in a €2,500 invoice due to an application error. For families in their position, this amount is a significant burden. Freshfields resolved the matter, recognising that it wasn't just a financial issue but a communication breakdown with administrative bodies.
Freshfields is also supporting two young girls with a family reunion application. These sisters went through an arduous journey via Turkey and Greece before arriving in Germany. Sadly, they were separated from their parents, who remain in Turkey. Bettina Schmaltz notes that ‘after all that these girls have been through, their strength and kindness is incredibly admirable.’
Fostering hope: the impact of Freshfields' partnership
Freshfields' partnership with ZAN e.V. goes beyond legal assistance; it fosters hope, empowerment, and resilience in Afghan women facing extraordinary challenges. One woman who sought help from the legal help desk expressed, ‘We really love to come here. My family and I are so happy for all your support. Sometimes I simply do not understand what exactly the authorities want from me. Their letters are often so difficult to read and to understand, so I cannot answer their letters without help.’ It's a testament to the warm and supportive atmosphere created by Freshfields' volunteers, making a real difference in these women's lives.
Legal help desk volunteer, Eliah Raufi, speaks about the enormous impact of the initiative: ‘ZAN e.V. puts us in a position where we can reach out our hands to help others in need. The project shows us that no bureaucracy nor language barrier is big enough to stop humans from helping each other. Every “thank you,” every smiling eye or other gesture of gratitude makes the effort we put in worth it.’
ZAN e.V. and Freshfields have united to illuminate a path towards self-determination for Afghan women in Germany. This pro bono partnership embodies Freshfields' dedication to ensuring access to justice and access to opportunity for marginalised communities. As the partnership, its impact on Afghan women in the Rhine-Main region stands as a testament to the power of collaboration and compassion. Together, they are changing lives, one step at a time, and offering a brighter future to those who need it most.