An exchange student from Pakistan struck up an unlikely friendship. Then another student opened fire at Santa Fe High School.

Texas Tribune News

Jaelyn Cogburn holds Sabika Sheikh’s memorial cross.
Jaelyn Cogburn holds Sabika Sheikh’s memorial cross.
Brian Goldman

Only a few kids in the fourth-period girls’ PE class noticed the new student. She had long black hair and mahogany eyes, and when she walked into the gym, 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. She seemed a little lost, unsure what she was supposed to be doing. It was September 11, 2017, and after two weeks of cancellations caused by Hurricane Harvey, classes had resumed at Santa Fe High School, some 35 miles south of Houston.

Just before fourth period came to an end, one of the students approached the girl in the stands. 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 in white: “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.” She said that she was a foreign exchange student from Pakistan.

“That’s so cool,” said Jaelyn. “Pakistan.”

The girls kept talking. Jaelyn told Sabika her full name was Jaelyn Cogburn. She was 15 years old, a freshman and new to the school herself, so she didn’t know many people. Sabika said her full name was Sabika Sheikh. 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, was waiting. When Jaelyn climbed into the passenger seat, she mentioned the girl she had met in her PE class. “Mom,” she asked, “where’s Pakistan?”

“It’s on the other side of the world,” Joleen said. She gave her daughter a quizzical look. “Are you sure she said Pakistan?”

Despite its proximity to Houston, Santa Fe, with a population of 13,000, still feels very much like a small town. Joleen, who is 35, and her husband, Jason, 46, live with their six children (three of whom are adopted) on three and a half acres in a comfortable two-story home next to a small pond. Their neighbors grow vegetables and own livestock. “To be honest with you, not much happens down here,” Joleen said one afternoon, sitting at her kitchen table. She let out a light laugh. “Well, one day our pastor did run into a cow on his way to church.”

Santa Fe is a deeply conservative community. In 2000, the town attracted national attention when officials from the school district appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend their practice of conducting public prayers before football games. (They lost the case.) And the Cogburns are the town’s Brady Bunch. Every Sunday, Joleen and Jason take their children to Santa Fe Christian Church, which holds as a central tenet that the Bible is literally true. The affable Joleen, who grew up in Santa Fe, sometimes teaches a women’s Bible study class. On Friday nights, the equally good-natured Jason, a former high school quarterback from nearby Texas City who owns a wholesale seafood and crawfish company, would lead a recovery group for addicts and alcoholics. “We are Kingdom-minded,” Jason explained, brushing his shoulder-length blond hair out of his eyes as he took a seat at the table. “We like to tell our children that we live in this world but that we are not of this world.”

Like all of the Cogburn children, Jaelyn, the oldest birth child, had been homeschooled by Joleen, who followed a Bible-based curriculum. Jaelyn was shy. Outside of her siblings and a couple of girls from her church youth group, she mostly stayed to herself. 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.

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 of school, a smile on her face, talking excitedly about meeting a girl from Pakistan. As Joleen began fixing dinner, Jaelyn retreated to her bedroom, where she kept five Bibles on her bookshelf. She googled Pakistan and learned that it is in South Asia, bordered on one side by India and China and on the other by Afghanistan and Iran. She also read that almost all of Pakistan’s 200 million residents are Muslim.

Jaelyn returned downstairs, walked into the kitchen and 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 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.

Read the rest of this story at Texas Monthly.