A Pakistani exchange student attending Tri-Cities Prep this fall carried a single candle to the altar during the Catholic high school’s weekly Mass on Friday because he said he had to do something.
Almost 150 students and teachers died Tuesday after militants attacked a school in Behram Asim’s hometown of Peshawar. The 16-year-old passed the school, an academy for the children of Pakistan’s military, almost every day when back in his country.
“I have a friend who lost her only two cousins,” Behram said. “All the children who are dead, I somehow know them.”
The candle he placed near the ones already glowing in the school’s advent wreath was not just in remembrance of those who were killed, but part of a larger call for peace and unity in light of tragedy — a message echoed throughout Friday’s service.
“When you think about cultural exchange, you think of a lot of things that are really superficial, but when it comes to things like this, matters of the heart, it’s more about commonality,” Principal Arlene Jones told the Herald.
Behram arrived in the United States in September to spend the year at Tri-Cities Prep, along with a handful of other exchange students. He’s become close with students and teachers, he said, and participated on the school’s basketball team.
This past week was supposed to be about preparing and taking finals before enjoying a welcome break from classes. Tuesday morning brought a text from a friend, also from Peshawar and on exchange in the U.S.
“It said, ‘Behram, these are our schools,’ and there were pictures,” Behram said.
It wasn’t until his friend gave him more information that he realized it was a school only miles from his family’s home in the city in northern Pakistan.
He went to school late that day, breaking down in tears in the exchange program coordinator’s car as she drove him, he said.
Roxane Delfled, a Belgian exchange student and one of Behram’s closest friends at Tri-Cities Prep, said she was concerned when she didn’t see him at school that morning.
She noticed the pain in his face when she finally did see him, and she asked what was wrong.
“We walked to his locker and he told me everything,” said Roxane, 18. “I was so shocked I almost cried.”
Behram didn’t make it through the rest of his classes Tuesday. He couldn’t concentrate. But he struggled at home too, desperately looking for news coverage of the massacre, for photos, videos, updates on the growing list of casualties.
His host family had to take his laptop away from him.
“The more I knew, the more hurt I became,” Behram said.
It was easier to attend school Wednesday. The support he received from teachers and students, many of whom came up to him and personally expressed their sorrow for him and his community, was outstanding. But he still was troubled.
“I felt guilty, to be honest, because I was sitting here and I couldn’t do anything,” Behram said. “So if I can’t do anything, I can at least pray for them.”
He approached Jones on Thursday about holding a candlelight vigil for the victims in Peshawar. He also started wearing a black armband pinned with the flag of Pakistan.
School officials agreed to incorporate a memorial for the victims into the Mass ceremony, resulting in Behram carrying the candle to the altar ahead of the wine and wafers used during communion. He also gave a prayer of strength and protection taken from the Quran at the end of Mass.
“I really think it’s a good thing to see people from other countries show what they do in times like this,” Roxane said beforehand. “I’m glad we’re doing it.”
Clergy also referenced the school massacre in their remarks to the students and others at the Mass, noting that it’s a reminder to pray for peace in our own lives and all around the world and to seek to understand and work together.
And when Father Richard Sedlacek said “go forth and be lights in a dark world,” Behram retrieved the candle he’d brought forward and carried it back down the aisle.
“I want to show (the world who we are),” he said afterward. “If I don’t show them, they won’t know it.”