Joleen Zubek for Reader's Digest, Courtesy Joleen Cogburn
Only a few kids in the fourth-period girls’ PE class noticed the new student. She had long black hair and mahogany eyes, and she sat by herself in the bleachers, staring curiously at the other girls in their shorts and T-shirts doing jumping jacks and push-ups. It was September 11, 2017, and after two weeks of cancellations caused by Hurricane Harvey, classes had resumed at Texas’s Santa Fe High School, some 35 miles south of Houston.
Just one student approached. She had straw-blond hair and turquoise eyes, and she wore a blue T-shirt with a Bible verse, Matthew 4:19, printed on the front: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
The girl with the blond hair smiled. “I’m Jaelyn,” she said.
The girl with the black hair smiled back. “I’m Sabika.”
Jaelyn told Sabika her full name was Jaelyn Cogburn. She was 15 years old, a freshman, and new to the school, so she didn’t know many people. Sabika said her full name was Sabika Sheikh, and she was a foreign exchange student from Pakistan. She was 16, a junior. She didn’t know anyone at all.
The bell rang, and Jaelyn and Sabika moved on to their other classes. At the end of the day, Jaelyn hurried out to the parking lot, where her mother, Joleen Cogburn, was waiting. “Mom,” Jaelyn asked, “where’s Pakistan?”
Despite its proximity to Houston, Santa Fe, with a population of 13,000, feels like a small town. Deeply conservative, the town attracted national attention in 2000 when school officials appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend their practice of conducting public prayers before football games. (They lost.)
Joleen and her husband, Jason Cogburn, live with their six children (three of whom are adopted) on three and a half acres in a comfortable two-story home. Every Sunday, the family attends Santa Fe Christian Church. Joleen has homeschooled all the children, following a Bible-based curriculum.
Jaelyn, the oldest birth child, was shy. Outside of her siblings and a couple of girls from her church youth group, she stayed mostly to herself. But that summer, she had surprised her parents, telling them that she wanted to go to Santa Fe High.
Joleen and Jason assumed that their daughter would have trouble adjusting to life at a public high school with 1,500 students. Instead, Jaelyn came home on that first day smiling and talking excitedly about meeting a girl from Pakistan. She googled Pakistan and read that almost all the country’s 200 million residents are Muslim.
“You know, Mom,” Jaelyn said, “I’ve never met a Muslim.”
“Well, maybe God has put you together for a reason,” Joleen said. “Who knows? Maybe the two of you will become friends.”
That same night, at the home where Sabika was staying with her host family, a Pakistani-born Muslim couple, she called her parents, 8,500 miles away in Karachi. Sabika’s mother, Farah Naz Sheikh, and her father, Abdul Aziz Sheikh, who goes by Aziz, had been up with their three other children since dawn—awakened, as they were every morning, by the call to prayer that warbled from loudspeakers attached to the nearby mosque.
Karachi, a sprawling port city on Pakistan’s southern border with a population of some 15 million, is often called one of the world’s least livable cities. The roads are choked with rickshaws, motorcycles sputtering clouds of exhaust, and wagons hitched to donkeys. Millions of residents dwell in slums without water or electricity. In 2002, Karachi made international headlines when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted on a downtown street and later beheaded.
Still, Sabika loved Karachi. She loved piling into her father’s green Toyota Corolla with her family for the 15-minute drive to the beach. She eagerly anticipated visits to the mall. And she looked forward to playing badminton on the roof of their apartment building with her sisters, Saniya and Soha, and her brother, Ali. With the aromas of spice-laden dinners wafting from neighbors’ apartments, the children would play until the sun set, when the call to prayer sounded.
Sabika had not yet reached her first birthday when Al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. As a teenager, disturbed by the characterization of her country as a breeding ground for extremism, she told friends and family that she planned to join Pakistan’s foreign service and become a diplomat. She wanted to show people that Pakistanis were not terrorists and that there was nothing to fear about their faith.
In the fall of 2016, Sabika’s cousin Shaheera Jalil Albasit told her about a U.S. State Department program that provides funding for high school students from countries with large Muslim populations to study in the United States for a school year. Aziz and Farah feared that their daughter would be disparaged by anti-Muslim Americans, but they agreed to allow her to apply.
Sabika was one of roughly 900 students selected. She was ecstatic. When she received the news that she would be sent to Santa Fe, Texas, she and her parents went online and looked at photos of the town and the high school, a long, boxy redbrick building alongside Highway 6.
On the day she left, in August 2017, Aziz and Farah arranged for a sadaqah, a ritualistic sacrifice of a goat, to protect Sabika from harm. Then the family piled into the Corolla to take Sabika to the airport.
After their first-day meeting, Jaelyn and Sabika became fast friends. Every day during fourth period, they walked laps around the gym, with Jaelyn asking Sabika questions based on what she had read online. Was she really not allowed to eat pork because it’s considered unclean? (Correct.) Would she allow her marriage to be arranged by her parents? (Most likely, though she would want to meet him first.) And did she truly believe that the Koran was the final word of God? (Of course, Sabika said.)
Jaelyn showed Sabika the Bible app on her phone, and Sabika pulled up her Koran app, along with a digital compass, which she relied on to face east toward Mecca for her prayers.
“They were the odd couple, the Christian girl and the Muslim girl,” says their PE teacher, Connie Montemayor. “In a way, it was a perfect pairing of opposites.”
In October, Jaelyn invited Sabika to her house to meet her family. “Welcome to Texas!” Joleen said, giving her a hug. Over the next few weeks, Joleen drove Sabika and Jaelyn to the movies, a high school football game, and the theater department’s performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
After Sabika shared with Jaelyn that she wanted to experience life in a non-Muslim home, Jaelyn asked her parents whether Sabika could live with them. “Honey, I’ve already got six children to raise,” said Joleen. But she noticed a pleading look in Jaelyn’s eyes that she had never seen before, and soon it was arranged for Sabika to live with the Cogburns.
She was given an upstairs bedroom. She hung a Pakistani flag on the wall, and on her door she taped a drawing she had made of an airplane flying over a globe. Beneath the airplane she had written, in English, “Up in the clouds, on my way to unknown things.”
Each evening, after Sabika prayed and called her parents, she and Jaelyn would talk late into the night. Jaelyn would quote the Bible, and in turn Sabika would quote the Koran.
On Christmas Eve, a few days after she moved in, Sabika said she wanted to go to church with the Cogburns. She wore an ankle-length, traditional Pakistani dress and sat next to Jaelyn. She listened in bewilderment as the pastor talked about Jesus being born in a manger to a virgin, and she watched the congregants observe the Last Supper by drinking grape juice and eating wafers. She rose with everyone else to sing contemporary Christian songs, and she closed her eyes during prayers.
For Christmas, Joleen bought Sabika last-minute presents: a camera, a scrapbooking album, a ring decorated with a crescent moon, pajamas, sweaters, and socks. And the week after, Sabika went with the Cogburns to a Christian retreat center in West Texas. There, word spread that Sabika was a practicing Muslim, and a teenage boy confronted her, snidely asking whether she was a terrorist. “Stop it!” Jaelyn snapped.
“Sabika’s my friend!”
“You’re friends with her?” the boy pressed.
“We’re best friends,” said Jaelyn.
Just as she had been in Pakistan, Sabika was a straight-A student. In physics, she made nearly perfect grades. In English, she dutifully read American classics such as Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, and The Great Gatsby, and she wrote a research paper on the #MeToo movement. (“One of the best students I’ve ever had,” says Dena Brown, her English teacher.) In history, she gave a presentation about Pakistan in which she described the friendly people and delicious food. And she left an impression in other ways. “I don’t know how to explain this exactly, but you felt happy around Sabika,” says Montemayor. “She never argued, and she never got upset. She was a peacemaker. I used to tease her and call her my Nelson Mandela.”
Occasionally, Sabika did encounter tragic aspects of American life. In January, she and Jaelyn learned that a schoolmate had killed himself. And on Valentine’s Day, they got alerts on their phones that a deadly shooting had occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Sabika was familiar with school violence. Over the years, the Taliban had forcibly closed schools that educated girls in regions of Pakistan. But why, she asked Jaelyn, would an American boy, blessed with privileges most Pakistanis saw only on TV, go on such a rampage? If he was having a hard time, didn’t he have anyone to talk to? Couldn’t his family have helped?
During one of her calls with her parents, Sabika opened up about the side of American high school life that troubled her. Some of the students seemed so lonely, she said. They weren’t close to their families the way Pakistani children were. Aziz and Farah asked Sabika whether she felt safe, and she assured them there was nothing to worry about. She and Jaelyn were together always. “We will never put ourselves in danger,” she said.
Sabika was scheduled to return to Karachi on June 9, 2018, which meant that she would be spending most of Ramadan, the holiest period of the Islamic year, with the Cogburns. Sabika explained to them that every day during the monthlong observance, Muslims are required to fast from dawn until sunset. They are not allowed to engage in thoughts or behaviors considered impure. It is a time of introspection and communal prayer. Jaelyn, Joleen, and Jason said they wanted to fast with her. “It was our way of honoring Sabika,” says Joleen. “It was our way of letting her know how much she was loved.”
And so, on May 16, the first day of Ramadan, Jason, Joleen, Jaelyn, and Sabika woke earlier than usual and ate a full breakfast before the sun rose. At school, Jaelyn and Sabika still walked laps during PE, but they didn’t take a sip of water. That night, Joleen prepared a dinner of chicken spaghetti, and the family waited for sunset.
After dinner, Sabika went upstairs for her evening prayer, and as she unfurled her prayer mat, the bedroom door opened behind her. There stood Jaelyn, holding her own prayer rug. She placed it beside Sabika’s and said she wanted to pray with her. Sabika nodded and dropped to her knees.
“Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah,” Sabika recited.
“Dear precious Lord and Savior, thank you for this day,” Jaelyn began.
The morning of May 18, Sabika and Jaelyn ate a predawn breakfast, and then Jaelyn drove them to school in the family’s old green pickup. They sat in the truck and chatted until the bell rang. Sabika asked whether they could hang out a little longer. Jaelyn, though, had a test in her first-period biology class.
“We’re already late,” Jaelyn said. “Let’s just go.”
Minutes after Jaelyn took her seat in class, the fire alarm sounded. “It’s probably just a drill,” her teacher said. Jaelyn exited the school through a side door with other students. Once outside, she saw several police cars speed past, sirens screaming. She overheard a teacher say there had been a shooting in the art room. Panicked, Jaelyn borrowed a phone to call Sabika, but it went straight to voice mail. She tried again, over and over. She ran from one student to another, asking whether they had seen Sabika. She called her parents. “I can’t find Sabika!” she screamed.
Soon, news helicopters were hovering overhead. Local television stations broke into their regularly scheduled broadcasts to announce that an active shooter was at Santa Fe High School.
Half a world away, Aziz, Farah, and their children had just finished iftar, the evening meal at the end of the daylong fast. Aziz turned on the television to catch the news, and he saw on the ticker that there had been a shooting at a Texas school. He switched to CNN. On the screen was a photo of the same high school that Sabika had seen on her computer when she’d learned she was going to Santa Fe.
Aziz called Sabika 24 times in a row. He finally called Jason, who had driven to the high school with Joleen. The two men had never spoken. Talking slowly so that Aziz could understand him, Jason said Sabika was missing and that as soon as he was given more information, he would call back.
Jason, Joleen, Jaelyn, and other families who were still looking for their children were sent to a nearby building that officials were calling a “family reunification center.” Periodically, a bus arrived with students who had been inside the school since the police lockdown. The Cogburns watched each student step off the bus, hoping Sabika would emerge.
At 1:30, the final bus arrived, carrying students who had been in the art room. Joleen asked whether anyone had seen Sabika, and someone said she had seen her go into the classroom but hadn’t seen her come out. By then, only ten families remained at the reunification center. Jason got a call from a friend at the hospital. He ushered Jaelyn and Joleen into an empty room to tell them Sabika was dead. Jaelyn collapsed to the floor, and Joleen began screaming.
After the Cogburns drove home, Jason composed himself and walked outside to call Aziz, who was standing in his living room, surrounded by friends and relatives who had heard about the shooting. Farah sat with the children on the sofa. After speaking with Jason, Aziz lowered his phone. He turned to everyone in the room and said, “Sabika is no more.”
In all, eight students and two teachers were murdered, and thirteen others were wounded. A junior at the school, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, confessed. That morning, he had carried two guns to school under his trench coat. He went to the school’s art lab, pumped the shotgun, and started shooting.
For days, mourners gathered on the high school’s front lawn. The Cogburns went to a memorial service that the Islamic Society of Greater Houston held for Sabika. More than 2,000 people showed up. Jaelyn, her head covered with a prayer shawl, told the crowd in a trembling voice that Sabika was “loyal to her faith and her country. She loved her family, and she couldn’t wait to see them. She was the most amazing person I’ve ever met. I will always miss her.”
Sabika’s casket was wrapped in the green-and-white flag of Pakistan and flown to Karachi. A Pakistani honor guard placed the casket in a van, which transported it to the Sheikhs’ apartment. A throng of people had already gathered. When someone asked how Aziz was feeling, he said, simply, “My heart drowns.”
Sabika was taken to a small cemetery to be buried, not far from her grandparents. Aziz turned her face to the west so that she always would be looking toward Mecca.
Joleen asked the pastor at their church to hold a service for Sabika. It was a peculiar request—a memorial for a Muslim at an evangelical church. But during Sabika’s time in Santa Fe, the congregation had come to adore her. More than 100 people attended, singing Sabika’s favorite songs.
After the service, Jaelyn was in better spirits. But as the days passed, she had trouble focusing on anything but Sabika’s death. Joleen reminded her of a famous passage from the book of Psalms: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Jaelyn, though, was haunted by one thought in particular: if only. If only she’d stayed with Sabika in the parking lot, Sabika likely wouldn’t have been in the art room when the shooting started. Why, Jaelyn asked herself over and over, hadn’t she talked with her best friend a little longer?
In her bedroom, Jaelyn spent hours in prayer, begging God to “make a way” for her, and in June, just after her 16th birthday, she told her parents that God had heard her prayers.
“What does God want you to do?” Joleen asked.
A year earlier, Jaelyn had embarked on a ten-day mission trip with her church’s youth group to the impoverished Belizean village of Teakettle. She had volunteered at an orphanage and worshipped at a tiny tin-roofed Baptist church. Now she was convinced that God was calling her back. Just like Sabika, she told her parents, she wanted to live for a year with a host family and attend the local high school. She wanted to volunteer at the orphanage and spread a message of love to the Belizean people.
“We knew that if Jaelyn stayed around Santa Fe, nothing would get better,” says Jason. “The only way one gets through tough times is to serve other people.”
And so, in August, Jaelyn and Joleen flew to Belize and drove to a part of the country that tourists rarely see: its interior, thick with rain forests and tiny villages, where dirt streets are lined with shanties and smoke from cooking fires lingers in the air. Joleen stayed to help her daughter settle in. Once on her own, Jaelyn acclimated to her new routine, though she continued to experience flashbacks of the shooting. At the end of each day, she called home, read her Bible, and drifted off to sleep. On Sundays after church, she liked to go swimming in a river with the children from her host family.
In December, her school in Belize announced its annual poetry contest. Jaelyn decided to write about Sabika. It would be the first time she told anyone there about the shooting back home. The day of the competition, the entire student body gathered at the outdoor chapel to hear the contestants read their work. The themes were, for the most part, typical of teenage life: a girl’s lamentation about other girls who pretend to be friendly but really aren’t; a boy’s adoration of his brother.
When it came time for Jaelyn’s reading, she shuffled to the stage and stood in silence, rivulets of tears forming across her face. A minute passed. Then another. Jaelyn finally looked up and announced the title of her poem: “Why I’m Here.” She began:
I’m an American girl in Belize living her life alone.
You’ve never seen me. I’m unheard of and unknown.
She described her friendship with Sabika.
I swear I’ve never been closer to a person. Nor will I ever be.
She was like an angel sent from God and came to set me free.
She recounted the shooting.
A boy went to school with a gun in his hand.
He started shooting. And I just ran.
She shared the despair that still haunted her.
I know what it’s like to hurt, to have pain, to gain, to lose.
I know what it’s like to live when death has come so close.
When she finished, her fellow students gave her a standing ovation. Jaelyn broke into tears again and slowly walked back to her seat.
During one of their nightly phone calls, Jaelyn told Joleen that she did not plan to return home when the school year ended.
“I believe God is calling me to stay in Belize,” she said.
“For another year?” Joleen asked.
Jaelyn explained that she felt as if she was making a difference. She was getting the chance to do for others what Sabika had done for her and keeping Sabika’s spirit alive.
“Is there anything better I could do with my life?” Jaelyn asked. “Anything?”