KARACHI: After dreaming of making a proud return to her homeland and serving her people, Sabika Sheikh landed in Karachi after 10 long months in a coffin draped in the Pakistani flag in the wee hours of Wednesday.
In the United States she missed the aroma of Pakistani soil. She used to tell her host family that American soil was devoid of that scent. The late teen’s first cousin, 26-year-old Shaheera Jalil who lives in the United States and travelled to Pakistan with the body shared with The Express Tribune.
Sabika, a 17-year-old Pakistani student who went to Texas in an exchange programme, was killed last Friday. Her classmate, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, opened fire in Santa Fe High School, killing Sabika and nine other people. She was studying in the US as part of an exchange programme facilitated by the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) programme.
In Pakistan, the YES programme is run by the iEARN Pakistan-Centre, which works under the Society for International Education – a non-profit, non-government educational society based in Karachi. As part of this programme, students from different countries live with host families in the US.
After her burial in the Azeempura graveyard of Karachi on Wednesday, her friends and family recalled how exemplary and dedicated a student she was. The iEARN Pakistan-Centre in PECHS wears a sombre look as students keep dropping by to offer their condolences.
The organisation is collecting and compiling letters and notes sent to them in the memory of Sabika, which they will present to the bereaved family as a token of her time in the US.
Sabika’s cherubic smile and determination to do something for her country is well remembered. Country Coordinator of iEARN Pakistan-Centre Farah S Kamal, who sends the students to the YES programme, vividly remembers the first time she met Sabika. “I met Sabika first in the fall of 2016 when she came to our office for interviews. [She] was an exemplary student. She was among the 77 exchange students of the YES class of 2017-2018 selected through a year-long competitive process of selection and training,” she recalled, adding that she was a well brought-up child who was very respectful towards everyone. “She always had a pleasant smile on her face,” Kamal recalled.
Kamal never received any complaints about Sabika during the entire 10-month YES programme. “She made us all proud throughout her exchange year by being a phenomenal citizen ambassador of Pakistan to United States,” explained the country coordinator.
For the first few months, Sabika was hosted by a Pakistani origin American family in Santa Fe, but just before the new year began, her host family was changed and she was moved to the Cogurn family who were in the business of fish retailing. “With both the families that she stayed with, she was loved, respected and cared for. She bonded with them and was very much loved in the family community and her school,” explained Kamal.
As the local implementing partner for the YES exchange programme, the past few days have been the hardest in the history of the programme in Pakistan for the iEARN Pakistan-Centre, according to Kamal. “We deeply miss Sabika and share her family’s sorrow. She was a shining star in the programme.”
Earlier on Sunday, Houston’s Muslim community gathered to offer funeral prayers for Sabika, which were attended by a large number of Pakistani Americans. “I just want you all to know who she is, what her heart is, how brave she is,” Sabika’s host mother, Joleen Cogburn said during the funeral. “She wanted to impact the world. I think she’s done that.”
In a public Facebook post, Cogburn said, “Sabika, thank you for sharing your culture with us. I love you so much. Everything single thing about you is amazing. Your laugh might be the best thing about you!” Referring to a video of Sabika posted on Facebook, she said, “You are the daughter of Pakistan and the world should hear and see how amazingly awesome and fun and loving you are. I will always love you. I thank God every day that He would give us the most precious treasure in you.”
Sabika believed that two of the greatest challenges facing Pakistan and the world are gender inequality and climate change, Jalil said. “In her exchange programme application, Sabika mentioned that climate change is one of the three greatest challenges of our time,” she said. “Her vision was to return and work for youth volunteering, community education and women empowerment.”
Kamal shared that in her application form, Sabika mentioned that she wanted to learn more about women empowerment in the US so that she could implement it in Pakistan. Through her exchange programme, she was keen to find out about women’s contribution in the US.
Sabika’s childhood friend Dua cannot get the trauma of her death out of her head. “I will be remembered by her name for the rest of my life,” she said. “I am really proud of her.” Sabika, according to Dua, was very positive about Pakistan and wanted to serve the country by becoming its ambassador.
In a fitting tribute to a life tragically cut short, Sabika’s bedroom door in the US was decorated with a plane drawn on a black and white map with a short phrase inscribed on it. The words were ‘up in the clouds on my way to unknown things….’.