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Lee Drake is an adjunct research assistant professor in the UNM Anthropology Department. Photo courtesy of the UNM Anthropology Department.

UNM professor Lee Drake plays role in aiding Afghan refugees

Lee Drake, an adjunct anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico, recently received national attention for the work he’s done in aiding Afghan refugees, specifically for the role he played in helping 9-year-old Asma’s family get help.  

Asma and her family, who had already lost their father after he received threats from the Taliban for the assistance he gave to the American military, were trying to leave Afghanistan. They had been waiting outside of the entrance to an airport in Kabul, Afghanistan when Asma was struck by a tear gas container. This put her in grave need of medical attention and forced the family to leave the airport before they could depart.

Photos that were taken of the burns on Asma’s face made it into the hands of Drake in August, and fear for the young girl’s safety and knowing that the United States played a large part in the situation that caused her injury inspired him to immediately begin to work to help Asma.

“After I kind of became numb to the initial emotional shock of seeing a little girl who was hurt, I immediately recognized she has a story that is going to melt the hearts of everyone who hears it, that we can really get help for her if we act quickly,” Drake said.

Knowing time was limited due to the severity of Asma’s injury, Drake sent the photos in the messaging app Slack and immediately received responses. One of those responses was from former Marine and current Department of Defense lawyer Jason Greene, who was able to use his contacts to help Asma’s family.

From there, Asma got to CIA outpost Eagle Base to receive medical care for her burns. Once Asma and her family were in U.S. custody, Drake said there were long periods of blackouts when he was not able to get any updates on their situation.

Eventually, with the help of former Air Force gunner and veterans group policy advisor Hanna Tripp, Asma’s family made it on a plane to the United States, and are currently at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Drake said that since their arrival in New Mexico, he has not been able to meet the family due to a measles outbreak during the evacuation effort. 

Drake said he did not anticipate himself getting involved in aiding Afghan refugees, but he was always against the recently ended war against Afghanistan and this is part of what motivated him. Kris Sabbi, an adjunct professor at UNM as well as Drake’s former roommate, said he’s always been one to go to all ends to help someone out.

“He would do it for me and sure, I'm a close friend … but I think he would do it for anybody, as long as it was in his power,” Sabbi said.

Drake’s refugee involvement started with helping to track down information for 10 individuals, which turned into managing hundreds of emails and eventually directly managing cases for individuals and families to get them to safety. Currently, Drake works on cases for about five to six families a day doing volunteer humanitarian parole work. Drake said his involvement has also influenced some of his family and friends to help work on a few cases themselves.

Drake said people who want to help can call local representatives and senators and ask them to waive humanitarian parole fees for Afghan refugees. He said these fees add up to hundreds of dollars and must be paid in order for the refugees to get into the U.S.

“I dont think it’s fair for us to ask the Afghans to pay so much money … especially since the only reason they’re in danger is because of us,” Drake said.

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Sabbi said Drake will go to great lengths to help people, and although the hours for the job are long, Drake is completely dedicated.

“I wish there was enough time for everybody to meet him … He’s such a deeply, deeply caring and compassionate person,” Sabbi said.

Drake said the demands of his job are very time-consuming, but his family has been supportive. Oftentimes as a volunteer, Drake said you are the one making the hard decisions of “how to choose who gets help and attention.”

“There’s such an overriding moral obligation to help … Our country did this. We have an obligation to get everyone out,” Drake said. “And that obligation exists whether it’s easy or not.” 

Maddie Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at or on Twitter @madelinepukite

Editor’s Note: Asma’s full name is not listed for safety purposes.

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