When I urged Sabika to apply for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program in the United States, I did not know what I would be sending her off to. Nor did Sabika’s parents when they made the taxing decision to send her off on a journey as Pakistan’s student cultural ambassador. Nor did Sabika’s mother, aunts, cousins and siblings when they sat with her during those farewell nights, making lists of Pakistani souvenirs she would take as gifts for the American people.
None of us knew she would return in a box, draped in Pakistan’s green and white flag.
Before she died, Sabika was counting the days to her return home in less than a month. She had given her parents a list of her favorite Pakistani dishes to be cooked on the day of her return and had promised her three young siblings gifts from the United States. She made her U.S. host families fall in love with her Pakistani culture and at 17 had already planned to start community volunteering upon her return for women’s empowerment, peace and environmental sustainability.
On that monstrous night when I took the flight to Houston to bring Sabika home to Pakistan, I saw her in every person. She was the girl sitting in the seat in front of me. Her hair, her hands — it was Sabika. Throughout the flight, I stared in her direction, praying the sincerest prayer I’ve ever made that this girl would turn around and be Sabika.
I traveled through the county where Sabika lived and went to school for the past nine months. That night, the streets, shops and houses looked so deserted of life that I almost felt criminal for having sent Sabika there.
The next day, I stood outside Santa Fe High School, where a little more than 24 hours earlier, the accused 17-year-old barged into an arts class with his father’s shotgun and revolver, shouted “surprise” and within minutes ended 10 lives. I thought about those students realizing that they weren’t experiencing a drill, and I thought about Sabika, who ran to a closet to hide. Those images cut my heart every single day.
On May 20, I finally met Sabika lying on the freezing stretcher. I held her hand and felt her fingers for the longest time. This was the hand with which she must have gripped the closet door hoping that the shooter would not find out that she and her classmates were hidden inside, hoping that his weapons would miraculously cease functioning and hoping that he would decide against pulling the trigger.
For nearly two decades in Pakistan, we have fought and defeated terrorism as a front-line ally in the global war on terrorism. We know too well how terrifying terror feels. Today, I feel genuinely terrified studying on a U.S. campus because of our vulnerability to gun terror. More terrifying is that we have no control over it.
When Sabika was finally placed in the box — sealed tight with screws — I kept looking at it, struggling to make sense of it. After all, how will it ever make sense that we sent her to the United States as a young girl — so incredibly full of life, ambition, humility, beauty and promise — and that she returned home like this?