KARACHI, Pakistan — Sabika Sheikh finally returned to her family in Pakistan on Wednesday from her months away as a foreign exchange student in Texas. Her father was the first to meet her coffin, draped by a Pakistani flag, at Karachi’s airport in the dark of the early morning.
Army cadets loaded the 17-year-old’s coffin into an ambulance as dozens of sobbing family members and friends recited Quran verses. Doors shut, a siren flipped on and the ambulance took Sabika’s body and immediate family home for a burial ceremony. The acting American consul general, John Warner, choked back tears on the tarmac as he comforted a friend of Sabika’s.
Sabika was one of 10 killed when another student opened fire last week at Santa Fe High School in Texas with guns he had taken from his father. Family members said Sabika had loved her time there, and had hoped it would help realize her dream of becoming a diplomat and working for peace.
“This is a form of terrorism. It shouldn’t happen anywhere: not in America, not in Pakistan,” said Sabika’s father, Aziz Sheikh, in an interview at the family home in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial hub.
A youth ambassador, Sabika was sent to Texas by an initiative sponsored by the State Department called the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program, known as YES. The program sent about 900 students from all over the world this year to live with American families and attend local high schools in nearly every state of the country.
Sabika was drawn to the United States for its modernity, diversity and — like many of the students — its security, her family said. She excitedly texted updates to family and friends back home, sharing her views of the Texan town and the warm American family who hosted her, the Cogburns.
The six-month program is one of many sponsored by the State Department that aims to show students a positive side of the United States and cultivate ties with potential future leaders abroad, top-grade students like Sabika with ambition.
But Sabika was determined that the influence would go both ways, that she would present the best face Pakistan had to offer to Americans.
She was on a mission, friends and family say, to change American views on Islam and convince those she met that hers was not a violent religion. Everyone she met in the United States heard about how there was more to her religion and country than headlines about terrorist attacks.
That she became a victim of violence herself there, right in her school, horrified her friends and family who were counting the days till her return.
On Friday morning, just before the gunman entered the school, she sent a Snapchat message to her best friend, Rumsha Munawar, a classmate in Karachi.
The Snapchat featured Sabika smiling, with a message: “19 days until I’m back!”
“She was so excited to be in America,” Rumsha said. “She used to call me almost every day during her breaks at school and would tell me stories about how the school was so different, about how boys and girls mixed way more than they did here in Pakistan. Most of all she really liked her host family.”
She added: “I can’t look at my school now. The entire school reminds me of her. Every corner, I have a memory with her.”
As the gunman began his attack, sunset was drawing near some 8,500 miles away from Santa Fe in Karachi, where Sabika’s family was preparing to break their fast on the second day of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslim families come together.
“I sat down and put on the news. The ticker at the bottom said, ‘Shooting in a school in Texas,’ so I switched to CNN and they were showing live footage of Sabika’s school,” Mr. Sheikh said. “Then I called her, and she didn’t pick up. Sabika always picked up, so I knew something wasn’t right. That’s when I started getting scared.”
Rumsha, Sabika’s friend in Karachi, questioned how such a young student could both acquire such guns and smuggle them so easily into school, even in Pakistan, where gun laws are lax.
“In Pakistan, even if someone attacks a school, it’s someone from the outside,” she said. “It’s never one of our own students. I still can’t understand why someone would do that.”
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