An Extraordinary Friendship: Muslim Sabika and Evangelical Jaelyn Were Inseparable Until the Deadly School Shooting

An Extraordinary Friendship: Muslim Sabika and Evangelical Jaelyn Were Inseparable Until the Deadly School Shooting
Muslim Sabika Sheikh and evangelical Jaelyn Cogburn enjoyed an exemplary friendship. They were just inseparable until a student opened fire at Santa Fe High School a year ago on May 18, says Texas Monthly in a special report.

Sabika, a Pakistani student on a foreign exchange programme in the United States, was among those killed when a gunman opened fire at the school, about 35 miles south of Houston.

On the very day (September 11, 2017) they met, the duo became friends instantly. Both of them were new to the school – Jaelyn, 15, an evangelical with blond hair and Sabika, 16, a Muslim from a faraway country Pakistan, having long black hair and mahogany eyes.

Santa Fe is a small conservative town where like any other similar place very little happens. Jaelyn’s parents – Jason and Joleen – live with their six children (three of whom are adopted). Deeply religious, they take their children every Sunday to Santa Fe Christian Church, which holds as a central tenet that the Bible is literally true.

Jaelyn, the oldest birth child, had been homeschooled by Joleen, who followed a Bible-based curriculum. She was shy. But earlier that summer, she had surprised her parents, telling them that she wanted to meet new people. She said that God had “put it on my heart” to go to Santa Fe High.

And Jaelyn came home on that first day of school, a smile on her face, talking excitedly about meeting a girl from Pakistan. She Googled Pakistan and learned that it is in South Asia and almost all of Pakistan’s 200 million residents are Muslim.

Jaelyn told Joleen that Sabika was likely a Muslim. “You know, Mom,” she 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 who had lived quietly in Santa Fe for years, she went to her room and called her parents, 8,500 miles away in Karachi.

Sabika told them about her first day at the high school and that she had met a few American students, and she was looking forward to getting to know them better.

And just Jaelyn’s parents, both Aziz and Farah are religious minded and pray five times a day.

Despite reassuring her parents that her first days at Santa Fe High had gone well, Sabika felt she was struggling to fit in. Her research into American teen life had been futile; she had a hard time following her classmates’ jokes and pop culture references. She also sensed that other students were uncomfortable around her, unable to grasp what she was saying because of her accent. But there was one exception – a shy Jaelyn.

Every day during fourth period, Jaelyn happily walked laps around the gym with Sabika, asking her 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 Quran was the final word of God? (Of course, Sabika said.)

During their walks, Sabika, who had never before met a Christian, would ask Jaelyn about her faith. Jaelyn explained that she had devoted her life to Jesus Christ at the age of five. She was a fan of contemporary Christian music, particularly the groups Hillsong and MercyMe, and she wrote religious poetry.

Jaelyn and Sabika began meeting every day for lunch at the school cafeteria. Another student Samantha Lane, an irrepressibly upbeat sophomore who had attended Santa Fe public schools her entire life, gave them a primer on high school life, pointing out the cliques at various tables: the athletes, the cheerleaders, the band nerds, the brainiacs, the loners. Sabika and Jaelyn just stared, utterly absorbed.

In October, Jaelyn invited Sabika to her house to meet her family for the first time. “Welcome to Texas!” Joleen said, giving her a hug. To Sabika, Joleen was like all the American mothers she had seen on television: pretty, outgoing, always ready to drop everything to help one of her children. Over the next few weeks, Joleen drove Sabika and Jaelyn to a movie theatre to watch Chris Hemsworth in a Thor movie, to the football stadium to watch the high school’s football team play Texas City, and to the high school auditorium to watch the theatre department perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest. On Halloween, Joleen took them to Samantha’s house.

Later in December, Sabika mentioned to Jaelyn that she had asked a representative from her scholarship programme about moving in with a new host family. Her host parents were perfectly pleasant, she said, but she really wanted to experience what life was like in a non-Muslim American home. And thus Sabika moved to her friend’s house.

For a couple of days, Jason and Joleen didn’t tell their friends about their new houseguest. They could imagine the response: “What are you doing with a Muslim girl from a country where the terrorists live?” But when Christmas Eve arrived, Sabika said she wanted to go with the family to church. She dressed up in an ankle-length, traditional Pakistani dress and sat next to Jaelyn.

And each evening, after Sabika prayed and called her parents to check on her family and recount the details of her surreal American life, she and Jaelyn would lie in Sabika’s bed—Sabika’s head at one end, Jaelyn’s at the other—and talk late into the night.

Sabika was scheduled to return to Karachi on June 9, which meant that she would be spending most of Ramazan with the Cogburns.

Jaelyn, Joleen, and Jason responded in a manner she couldn’t possibly have expected. They said they wanted to fast with her. They didn’t care what their friends might think of them performing an ancient Muslim ritual. “It was our way of honouring Sabika,” said Joleen. “It was our way of letting her know how much she was loved.”

The morning of May 18, Sabika and Jaelyn quickly ate a predawn breakfast of scrambled eggs, yogurt, and fruit. Jason and Joleen were busy preparing for an upcoming crawfish festival at their store, so they told Jaelyn she could drive the family’s old green pickup to school. (Jaelyn didn’t have a licence, but the school was less than a mile away down a back road.)

On the way there, they listened to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” and when they reached the parking lot, they sat in the truck and chatted. The bell rang, and Sabika asked if they could hang out a little longer. Jaelyn, though, had a test in her first-period biology class, and she spotted what appeared to be a parking lot monitor coming their way.

After getting out of the truck, they realised the monitor was just another student. “Let’s go back to the truck and keep talking,” Sabika urged.

“We’re already late,” Jaelyn said. “Let’s just go.”

Minutes after Jaelyn took her seat in her biology class, the fire alarm sounded. “It’s probably just a drill,” her teacher said. “Leave all your things at your desks.”

After leaving the school, Jaelyn overheard a teacher saying that there had been a shooting in the art room. Panicked, she sprinted back toward campus, but a teacher grabbed her. Jaelyn found Samantha and borrowed her phone to call Sabika, but it went straight to voicemail. She tried again, over and over. She then began running from one student to another, asking if they had seen Sabika. She called her parents. “I can’t find Sabika!” she screamed. “I can’t find her!”

Jason, Joleen, Jaelyn, and other families who were still looking for their children were sent to a nearby school-district building that officials were calling a “family reunification centre”.

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”.