At Texas mosque, the community says goodbye to a girl and the dreams she represented

Remote video URL

STAFFORD, United States (WASHINGTON POST) - The funeral was about to begin, the first of 10 for the victims of the Santa Fe High School mass shooting, and the body of Sabika Sheikh was waiting at the mosque.

Sabika, 17, dreamed of being a diplomat, of working to empower women. A Muslim exchange student from Karachi, Pakistan, she had come to the United States through a State Department-funded study program, excited to leave behind the dangers posed by extremists at home to experience a country that represented all that was possible.

That's what her host family remembered about her, that there seemed so little for her to fear here in southeast Texas. And then a student opened fire at her school, in her classroom.

Now, Sabika was about to be on her way home, 20 days early. A Pakistani Embassy official had urged the medical examiner to work quickly so Sabika's family could bury her properly, a world away. A plane would leave with her body later this night. But first, the funeral.

Outside the mosque here, long before hundreds of people gathered to mourn, two men wondered what had become of America, their adopted homeland.

"I'm aghast," said Abdul Khatri, 60. "People come here because they are told there is peace here. You have the right to be protected here. It's why I came. But to have this happen not in India or Pakistan, but here? We have gotten off track. And it's been going on too long."

"Too long," the other man lamented. "I agree. Too long. But what will we do?"

Members of the community pray during a funeral prayer service for Sabika Sheikh at the Brand Lane Islamic Center in Stafford, Texas, on May 20, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

The grieving in the Houston area on Sunday (May 20) stretched from this mosque to the many churches near Santa Fe High School, the public search for answers to an unspeakable crime briefly suspended to make room for mourning. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, attended morning prayers at a Baptist church just down the road from the high school. The Saltgrass Cowboy Church held its regular Sunday morning service. Other churches welcomed their regular flocks, plus those newly compelled to visit.

It was striking that the first funeral was at a mosque, for a student who had barely gotten to experience American culture and ended up being consumed by one of its most divisive issues - the epidemic of school shootings.

"You imagine what it's like for her parents - all their hopes and dreams wrapped up in this child," said Farha Ahmed, an attorney from nearby Sugarland, drawn to attend Sabika's funeral. "And the next time they will see her, she'll be in a casket."

The mourners poured into the Masjid Sabireen mosque in this small town about 55km from Santa Fe, removing their shoes before stepping inside. Several students from Santa Fe High made the trip. So did Houston's mayor and two members of Congress. The mayor of tiny Stafford sat down and hurriedly pulled out his phone.

"Can you please make sure all flags in town are flown at (half-staff)," Mayor Leonard Scarcella said into his phone. "Tell him it's urgent."

Sabika's host family from Santa Fe arrived, six children in tow, the mother covering her blond hair with the red prayer shawl she'd received as a Mother's Day gift from Sabika.

Earlier at Arcadia First Baptist Church of Santa Fe, with Abbott in attendance, pastor Jerl Watkins tried to comfort the members of his congregation by telling them that prayer and acceptance of Christian values are the things that will heal this community. But he also pointed to the seeds of what he saw as a broader problem.

"It seems to me, since the 1960s in this country, we've begun to think technology and other things can replace our God, and we've taken God out of the schools, and social media has taken togetherness out of the family," Watkins said to about 200 parishioners, moving on to arguments over violence and abortion.

"Many of these video games and movies our children are exposed to on a daily basis is all about thrill and killing and destruction. We've slaughtered millions of unborn children for the sake of convenience, and we twisted the sanctity of morality."

Before the service, which included honouring the congregation's nine graduating seniors, Abbott greeted parishioners in the vestibule. "I'm here to comfort my fellow Texans," he said.

Host family members of Sabika Sheikh are comforted following a funeral prayer service at the Brand Lane Islamic Center in Stafford, on May 20, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Several parishioners told Abbott they were glad he's not rushing to implement new laws or restrictions on firearms after the shooting, during which a 17-year-old student allegedly gunned down eight students and two teachers with a shotgun and a pistol that police said belonged to his father.

"It's not a gun issue - it's a door issue," said Monica Barcknell, an 18-year-old senior, who like many people in this town think the shooting could have been prevented had the school had stricter entrance and exit policies.

Just 50km away, at the mosque, the issue of guns was discussed differently.

"We need to pass laws that restrict guns and other weapons of mass killing," said Javed Malik, the mosque's director, speaking during the funeral. "And after the funeral prayers, what are we going to do to make sure this doesn't happen again?" said Sheikh Syed, the imam.

Authorities said on Sunday that they are continuing to investigate the attack, which they said appeared to be intended to kill as many students and teachers as possible.

Mr Nasir Shenwari (centre), holding daughter Aunza as the casket of Santa Fe High School shooting victim Sabika Sheikh, leaves after a funeral service in Stafford, on May, 20, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Abbott said the suspect in Friday's school shooting was armed with "several different types of explosive devices" including molotov cocktails and devices that use carbon dioxide to explode. "He had some he threw into the classroom and some, as I understand it, were found in his home," Abbott said after he visited the high school. "So it's clear he wanted to try to use explosive devices, but he did not put them together in a way that they did explode. . . . But it shows this killer was intent on trying to inflict horrific damage on these kids, and my hope is he gets swift Texas justice."

Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady, who will be prosecuting Dimitrios Pagourtzis on charges of capital murder and aggravated assault of a police officer, said federal prosecutors also might file charges after the FBI completes its investigation. "We have a lot information and there is a lot of investigation still to be done," Roady said.

Roady declined to comment on whether authorities have uncovered a motive, and said neither the victim autopsy reports nor other evidence would be released before a trial. Authorities have said there were no obvious red flags ahead of the attack.

Roady said Texas law allows for the death penalty in capital murder cases, but he said he will not seek death for Pagourtzis because he is a minor; the Supreme Court has ruled that minors are not eligible to face capital punishment. "If the death penalty were on the table within the punishment range, I believe that we would be seeking it in this case," Roady said. "But the law is the law."

Mr Abdul Aziz (right), father of Sabika, and relatives pray for her in Karachi on May 19, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Sabika's funeral on Sunday was brief. The casket was carried into the overflowing mosque and everyone stood up. Minutes later, the service was over. And Fuad Cochinwala, president of the Islamic Center of Greater Houston, quietly worked to move the casket outside to a waiting hearse. Several people argued that he should wait until all the speeches and memorials were over. But Cochinwala was insistent. The casket needed to be removed now so it could be taken to the airport. "I need to get her home," he explained. "That's my job."

The consul general of Pakistan in Houston spoke of "shared grief". Houston's mayor noted that Sabika had achieved her dream of being a diplomat by pulling together two countries. And Sabika's host father recalled how his family had fasted along with Sabika during Ramadan. He thanked her for teaching him about love, "because when people love each other, these kinds of things don't happen."

More speeches were to come. But Sabika's body was gone.

The Turkish Airlines plane carrying her casket was scheduled to depart Houston at 8pm local time (9am Monday Singapore time). It would travel thousands of kilometres and make a brief stop in Istanbul. It was scheduled to land in Karachi at 4.30am Tuesday, local time.

Sabika's family would be waiting.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.