ROCKVILLE, Md. - Three days after the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, students are mourning deaths of their classmates. One of the victims was an exchange student from Pakistan who dreamed of being a diplomat one day.
Sabika Sheikh had just 18 days left before she was set to return to her family in Pakistan. She was going to spend the rest of Ramadan and then Eid al-Fitr with her family. Instead, her funeral was held on Sunday in Texas.
Sheikh had been in the United States for nine months after getting a scholarship as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program.
“She was extremely helpful and caring,” said Isra Cheema, who was part of the same exchange program and got to know Sheikh before their placements. “She was just one of the best people I have ever known in my entire life.”
Rooming together for five days, Cheema and Sheikh became fast friends. The 16-year-old and 17-year-old bonded in Pakistan over their impending adventure to the United States.
“She was bright too,” added Cheema. "Just really, really smart … She had worked for women’s rights in Pakistan. She was really passionate about it.”
Sheikh was placed in Santa Fe, Texas.
“She loved it,” explained Cheema. “Her sister was her best friend. She worked in her mom’s crawfish shop. They were a very close-knit family and they just did not want her to go back at all.”
Cheema was placed with a family in Rockville, Maryland.
“We’re like, that’s so far away,” remembered Cheema, when she got the news. “So that was the sad part. But overall, we loved our experiences. Exchange programs change you so much.”
With just weeks left in the school year for each of them, Cheema was shocked and broken by the news that her friend happened to be one of the 10 people gunned down.
“At the back of your mind, you would expect it, but you wouldn’t think it would be a reality, you know?” Cheema said. “Because when you just have 18 days, you’re like, ‘I’m almost out of here.’ … We came in with one view – that we’re going to love America, no matter what kind of country it is.”
“They came from another country expecting to see this place that we call home and they wanted to promote peace,” said Cheema’s host sister Claire Gellilo. “Why are we letting them down like that?”
Cheema’s host family has been active gun control advocates since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“When I found out my sister knows someone directly affected, I was broken,” Claire Gellilo added. “It was like déjà vu.”
Her brother said it is no coincidence.
“It’s so frequent, it’s everywhere,” Daniel Gelillo explained. “Eventually you are bound to know someone who is either hurt or killed in one of these shootings.”
“It can be me,” said Cheema. “It can be, every day.”
After 17 people were shot and killed in Parkland, Florida in February, the rallying cry for students and gun control advocates across the country was #NeverAgain. Since then, there have been about a dozen school shootings. Despite the uphill battle they are facing, the Gelillo family and Cheema said they are more committed then ever to push for stricter gun control.
“If I can’t turn my sadness into something – an action – what is it all for?” said Cheema.
“If we are old enough to be getting shot in our schools, we are old enough to say something about it,” added Claire Gelillo.
“We should be much more outraged than we are,” said Daniel Gelillo. “We shouldn’t feel like this is normal.”
No matter where you land on the issue, there is no doubt that the gun debate in America is changing an entire generation.
“I came here as an engineering student,” Cheema explained when asked what she hopes to study in the future. “But now I’m going back focusing on law and activism.”
Students are planning a rally at the White House for the Santa Fe victims on Thursday at 4 p.m.