SANTA FE, Texas—Sabika Sheikh came to the United States to learn about American culture as part of a State Department-funded scholarship program.
On Friday, Sheikh fell victim to a gruesome American tradition, massacred with nine others at school by a gun-wielding classmate.
This time it was at Santa Fe High School near Houston, Texas. Among the victims were two popular substitute teachers, Ann Perkins and Cynthia Tisdale, as well as 16-year-old Shana Fisher, whose mother said the alleged shooter “kept making advances” at her daughter, Los Angeles Times reported.
Authorities said the suspect, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, confessed to the killings, telling police that he spared people he liked. It’s unclear what Pagourtzsis could have possibly had against Sheikh, whom grieving friends described to The Daily Beast as a smart, sweet and perpetually happy young woman.
Sheikh, 17, was from Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, and had been living with an American host family about two miles from the school where she was killed.
On a sweltering, drizzly afternoon, hundreds of people crowded into a mosque outside of Houston to pay respects to Sheikh. The service was so-well intended that it caused a traffic jam.
In the back of the mosque sat Sheikh’s host parents, Jason and Joleen Cogburn. Jason wore all black. His eyes were closed. His hands were clasped. His head hung down, with long and wavy blonde hair spilling in front of his face. He looked on the verge of tears.
Jason beamed, however, once he took the mic.
“I guess I’ll start with what happened last spring,” he said.
He recounted how Sheikh had come into his family’s life as an exchange student. One of his three daughters, who had been homeschooled prior to Sheikh’s arrival, had, he said, “found a friend.”
“I had no idea what God was going to send us,” Jason said. “He sent us one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever had in my life.”
“We loved her, and she loved us,” he added. “When she started Ramadan and started fasting, my family did that with her, because we did things together. Because, really, the root of our issue is love.”
Next came Joleen, wearing an Islamic prayer shawl that, she explained, Sheikh had given her as a Mother’s Day present. She choked back tears as she spoke with a slight Texas twang.
“I’m sure y’all see the love she has given us,” Joleen said.
Those who knew Sheikh personally were few and far between. Most had come, they told The Daily Beast, simply to show support.
Nasir Abassi, the first Pakistani sheriff’s deputy in Harris County, said he was there in part to “build bridges between law enforcement and communities” and in part because the sheriff had asked him to attend. Another man, Hasnain Shahid, circulated two petitions asking that schools be made “100% gun free.”
“I didn’t know them,” Uzma Iqbal, a physician who lives in Houston, said of the victims. “But I’m the mother of two children.” She was here with her two sons, Cyrus and Salman, because they “wanted to show support,” Iqbal said.
“When you cry, you cry the same tears,” Iqbal added. “Each and every one of us is an ambassador to the world.”
As the rain picked up outside, Muslims knelt down on the concrete and dirt to pray. The voice of Tauqeer Shah, one of the imams, could be heard faintly from an intercom. He read the names of the 10 people killed at Sante Fe High School.
“Remember Shana Fisher,” he said. “Remember Kimberly Vaughan.”
Inside were several officials and dignitaries, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Al Green, and Aisha Farooqui, the Houston consul general for Pakistan.
“We are here in the House of God,” Farooqui said. Her message, she said, was “very clear: We need to take care our children.”
In nearby Texas City, the Cogburns run a popular fish market where Sheikh worked. The distinct smell of Gulf Coast seafood permeated remembrances of Sheikh on Saturday.
“When I found out, I cried my eyes out,” said Ashley Yelverton, who was working the cash register. “She meant everything to me. She was like my cousin.”
Yelverton described Sheikh “full of laughter” and “so happy.” Co-worker Mynon Parnell added some adjectives of her own: creative, sweet, giggly.
“She was here one day and not the next,” Parnell said, looking dejected. “We loved her here.”
Sheikh was part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, set up in 2002 to provide scholarships to children from countries with large Muslim populations. The goal is for students to “learn about American society and values,” according to the YES website.
In Pakistan, Sheikh’s father described her as “extraordinary” and “talented,” Al-Jazeera reported.
“Even now I cannot believe that my daughter is gone,” Abdul Aziz said.