Sabika Sheikh spoke to her 9-year-old sister on the phone from suburban Houston on Friday, counting down the days before she would complete her high school exchange program and return to the family home in Karachi, Pakistan.
“She told me that in 20 days we will be together,” said Sabika’s sister, Soha. “She had bought so many gifts for me.”
Hours later, America’s unending cycle of campus gun violence reverberated thousands of miles away when a gunman identified as a 17-year-old junior opened fire at Sabika’s high school in Santa Fe, Texas, killing her and nine others.
The 17-year-old Pakistani exchange student was “the lifeline of our family,” her father, Aziz Sheikh, told The Times in a phone interview Saturday. The eldest of three siblings from a middle-class section of Karachi, the sprawling port city, Sabika was a “brilliant student” who had dreams of joining the Pakistani foreign service, he said.
She was due to return to Karachi on June 9, and the family was planning to spend the summer vacation traveling across the country visiting relatives. Her father said Sabika was looking forward to observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began this week and is marked by prayer, daylong fasts and family meals.
“She was a great soul,” he said.
Sheikh said his daughter regularly placed among the top three students in her classes in Pakistan before she began the exchange program last August. In a photo circulated on social media, Sabika is smiling and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Texas.”
The manager of the Kennedy-Lugar YES exchange program, Megan Lysaght, sent a letter to students saying the program was “devastated by this loss and we will remember Sabika and her families in our thoughts and prayers.”
Pakistan is no stranger to campus violence. Islamist militants who view the country’s formal education system as un-Islamic have targeted hundreds of schools over the past decade, with the deadliest attack coming in 2014, when gunmen killed more than 140 people, mostly students, at an army-run school in the northern city of Peshawar.
Sabika’s uncle, Ansar Sheikh, described the Texas shooting as an act of terrorism and pleaded with the U.S. 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.”
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 favorite dishes on June 9.”
As reporters swarmed the family’s house in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal neighborhood of Karachi, Sheikh said he had received condolence calls from the U.S. 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 U.S. mission in Pakistan are devastated by and mourn her loss.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered his condolences Saturday.
“I send my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Sabika Sheikh,” he said in a written statement. “Sabika was in the United States on the State Department-sponsored Youth Exchange and Study program, 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 both here in the United States, and in Pakistan.”
Sheikh 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.”