KARACHI - Abdul Aziz learned about the US school shooting in which his 17-year-old daughter was killed on CNN, with the story airing live as he broke his Ramazan fast thousands of miles away in Pakistan.

In those chaotic first moments of confusion and terror he called his daughter Sabika Sheikh’s phone over and over. She did not answer.

“I kept calling her and sent her messages on WhatsApp. Never before had my daughter failed to reply,” Aziz told AFP, fighting back tears at his home in Karachi Saturday, just hours after he and his wife had their worst fears confirmed.

“We are still in a state of denial. It is like a nightmare,” said Aziz. His wife sat nearby, visibly still shocked and seemingly unable to speak as friends and relatives tried to comfort her.

Sheikh, an exchange student at the Santa Fe High School in Texas, was killed along with nine others after a heavily armed student opened fire on his classmates Friday.

It was the latest school shooting to rock the US, and came just three months after the massacre in Parkland, Florida in which 17 people were killed, sparking an unprecedented grassroots, student-led gun control movement.

Sabika’s uncle, Ansar Sheikh, described the Texas shooting as an act of terrorism and pleaded with the US government to take action. “I don’t blame the murder of my girl on American society but on that terrorism mindset that is there in all societies. We need to fight it all over the world,” he said.

“I do ask the American government to make sure weapons will not be easily available in your country to anybody. Please make sure this doesn’t happen again. It really hurts.”

In Pakistan, the Santa Fe shooting has unleashed an outpouring of sympathy and horror over the tragic murder of Sheikh, who had been in the US for 10 months and was just weeks away from coming home.

Sheikh, whose father said she had always excelled in school, had nurtured dreams of serving in Pakistan’s foreign office.

She had been due to return to Karachi in time for Eidul Fitr, marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramazan, in which families come together and celebrate with days of feasting.

“She was coming back soon,” her father said. “There is a general impression that the life is safe and secure in America. But this is not the case.”

The alleged gunman - Dimitrios Pagourtzis, another student at the school who at 17 is the same age as Sheikh - was later apprehended by police and is being held on capital murder charges, meaning he could face the death penalty.

Police have yet to release details about a possible motive.

It was the 22nd school shooting this year, according to US media reports, a disturbing statistic in a country where firearms are part of everyday life and there are more than 30,000 gun-related deaths annually.

The news that a Pakistani exchange student was among the dead appeared to break through the now-routine outpouring of grief on social media after such killings, with US celebrities joining Pakistanis in expressing their sorrow

“This little girl could’ve been my daughter. We must do more than just console the parents of these murdered kids,” said American actress Mindy Kaling on Twitter, along with a picture of Sheikh in a post online.

Some Pakistanis, for whom militant violence is all too familiar, branded the killing “terrorism”.

“My heart is crying for #SabikaSheikh we have lost our brightest asset because of terrorism,” tweeted Malik Rohaina, from Hyderabad.

Despite perennially rocky relations between Washington and Islamabad, the US has long been a favoured destination for Pakistani students studying abroad, with thousands enrolling in American schools every year.

Even as he mourned the loss of his daughter, Aziz said he hoped the tragedy would not frighten fellow Pakistanis from following her lead.

“Such incidents should not make people lose heart... and one should not stop going to the US or UK or China or anywhere,” said Aziz. “One must go for education undeterred.”

Sabika Sheikh spoke to her 9-year-old sister on the phone Friday, counting down the days before she would complete her high school exchange programme in suburban Houston and return to the family home in Karachi.

“She told me that in 20 days we will be together,” said Sabika’s sister, Soha. “She had bought so many gifts for me.”

The 17-year-old Pakistani exchange student was “the lifeline of our family,” her father said. The eldest of three siblings from a middle-class section of Karachi, Sabika was a “brilliant student”.

She was due to return to Karachi on June 9, and the family was planning to spend the summer vacation travelling across the country visiting relatives. “She was a great soul,” he said.

Aziz said his daughter regularly placed among the top three students in her classes in Pakistan before she began the exchange programme last August. In a photo circulated on social media, Sabika is smiling and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Texas.”

Sheikh was in the US on a State Department-sponsored exchange programme. The manager of the Kennedy-Lugar YES exchange programme, Megan Lysaght, sent a letter to students saying the programme was “devastated by this loss and we will remember Sabika and her family in our thoughts and prayers.”

Sabika’s middle sibling, Ali, described her as his best friend. “She asked me to make sure her room was neat and clean when she came back,” he told Pakistani news media. “She had also asked our mother to cook her favourite dishes on June 9.”

Expressing his “deepest condolences” to her family and friends, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that Sheikh was “helping to build ties between the United States and her native Pakistan”.

“Sabika’s death and that of the other victims is heartbreaking and will be mourned deeply” in both countries, he added.

As reporters swarmed the family’s house in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighbourhood of Karachi, Aziz said he had received condolence calls from the US Ambassador to Pakistan, David Hale, and Pakistani authorities in the United States.

“As an exchange student, Sabika was a youth ambassador, a bridge between our peoples and cultures,” Hale said in a statement. “All of us at the US mission in Pakistan are devastated by and mourn her loss.”

Aziz said the Pakistani consul general in Houston told him that Sabika’s body would be brought to Karachi on Monday. “She was the lifeline of our family,” he said. “Her mother and siblings are in deep shock.”

 

 

‘Please make sure this doesn’t happen again’