When we sent our daughter Sabika to study in the United States from Pakistan, we were not fully aware of the gun culture there. That’s not something the exchange program warned us about. We thought she would be safe.
Instead, a few days before she was scheduled to return from her year abroad in Houston, Texas, she was one of 10 people shot and killed by a classmate in the Santa Fe High School shooting in May of 2018. We were devastated.
It’s not as if we don’t have violence in Pakistan. In 2014 we had a horrific school shooting in Peshawar. A total of 141 students and faculty were massacred in what was, for me, the darkest moment in my country’s history. But all of the shooters were foreign terrorists, and since then, heightened security and restricted access to guns has helped ensure that nothing like that has happened again.
What I don’t understand with U.S. school shootings like the one at Santa Fe — or the one at Saugus High School on Thursday — is who the enemy is. Students are shooting their neighbors, their classmates, their coworkers. What leads to that?
At the time of the Santa Fe shooting, we were getting ready for Sabika’s return, which coincided with the end of Ramadan. We were busy preparing all her favorite foods in anticipation of a joyful arrival. Instead, the holiday was a time of mourning and grief.
A lot of people came to visit our home and pay their respects, and I didn’t really have the time and space to think through the impact of this horrible experience. After people left, when the grief was too great, I continued to tell myself that my daughter was still in the U.S., still on her exchange program.
On my better days, I felt like maybe Allah had given us the year of her studying abroad, away from home, so we could learn to live without her.
Earlier this year, my husband and I visited Houston with our three remaining children to see the school she had loved and meet her host families. It was a difficult trip. During a layover in Istanbul on our way to Texas, one of our children begged us to abandon our plans and go back to Karachi.
In Houston, we visited the mosque where our daughter’s funeral took place. And we visited Santa Fe High School, where she was killed. It was summertime, so the halls were mostly empty and quiet. But the entire time we were there, I wanted to escape. My younger daughter, Sania, was brave enough to peek into the art room where her big sister died. She later talked about how everything at the school seemed sad: the atmosphere, the trees, the air, everything.
We visited a counseling center where some of the surviving victims of Sabika’s school shooting have gone for help. There we met the only female student to survive in the room where Sabika died. She recounted those terrifying moments, and how she had tried to get Sabika to run out of the room with her, but said my daughter chose to hide under a desk. As this student remembered that horrible day, she cried. A year after the massacre, she was still incredibly traumatized. I hugged her. It was nice to meet someone who had been friends with my daughter.
I also met another mother who lost a child in the shooting. This woman told me she had to move from her house because she couldn’t bear to see her daughter’s old bedroom or to drive the same roads that she used to with her child. This woman took my hand and cried and cried.
On our flight from Houston, Sania sat next to an older passenger and started talking to her. She shared the story of Sabika’s death, and this woman told her that she lost her 44-year-old son to gun violence, leaving her three grandchildren with no father. My daughter and this complete stranger began crying together. She told Sania that more measures need to be taken to limit access to guns. I can’t understand why more Americans don’t see that need.
I don’t know what we expected from our trip, but the colorful image of life in the U.S. that Sabika always painted for us on the phone was not the world we experienced. Without her there, all we saw was black and white.
I blame myself for not knowing more about gun violence in the U.S. before I allowed Sabika to study there. But I also blame your gun culture.
Farah Aziz lives with her family in Karachi, Pakistan. This op-ed was adapted from interviews with Aziz and her daughter Sania conducted by Jesse Hardman.