Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Sister of San Bernardino shooter seeks custody of orphaned daughter

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Maybe the child would be hers one day, so Saira Khan began preparing the house for her niece's next visit. She sanitized the baby toys and double-checked the child safety locks. She cleaned the nursery where the girl had never been allowed to spend a night and tidied the crib that had been recovered and moved from a crime scene. It had belonged to the baby's parents, and it was in the apartment where they had left her one morning last December before driving to an office party in San Bernardino armed with pipe bombs, handguns and AR-15s.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik had killed 14 people that day and injured more than 20 others before dying in a shootout with police. They had also orphaned their own 6-month-old daughter. Now that baby had become a toddler who was just beginning to walk, and she was still living in foster care under the official custody of San Bernardino County, Calif.

Saira, who was Farook's older sister, had spent 11 months trying to adopt her niece, but so far the county would only agree to grant her regular, six-hour visits.

"Do we have her alone this time, or is someone coming to check on us?" asked Farhan Khan, Saira's husband.

"I don't know," she said.

"More questions? More investigators?"

"Probably," she said.

They had spent the past year trying to make sense of a shooting in which there were still so many unanswered questions, and lately the one that consumed them most was what would happen to the baby. They were her closest surviving relatives. Maybe caring for their niece, Saira thought, would restore some small bit of order not only to the baby's life but also to their own.

So Saira, 32, and Farhan, 42, had gone to court and filed for adoption. They had submitted to regular background checks and home inspections. They had been interviewed several times by Child Protective Services and cleared by the FBI of having any prior knowledge of the shooting. Now the only thing left to do was to wait for a custody decision that was based on the county's discretion, even though the county had not indicated when a decision might come.

"We are normal people. We are a good family," Saira had tried to impress upon one CPS representative after the next, and each of her niece's visits was an opportunity to prove it.

She cleaned the crumbs left on the living room carpet by her 3-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. She straightened the wall art hanging in the kitchen that read: "In this house, we do second chances. We do grace. We do forgiveness. We do hugs."

Their three-bedroom house was at the end of a cul-de-sac in a suburb of Riverside, with a lemon tree in the back yard and a view of the La Sierra Hills.

Farhan worked in printer sales, managing a team of 12 employees. Saira was finishing her master's degree in education. They had two children, a hybrid car and a vacation timeshare in San Diego — a nice California life until the day their cul-de-sac had jammed with police cars and television broadcasters, some of whom had mistakenly identified Saira and Farhan as the perpetrators of what was then considered the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States since 9/11.

The shooting had upended so many American families, including theirs. Saira said that her mother was taking sleeping pills to get through the night, and her father was escaping into delusions and becoming harder to understand.

Meanwhile, Saira and Farhan were somehow trying to hold everything together, apologizing to the nation at a news conference, reaching out to families of victims, sinking some of their savings into adoption proceedings and returning at the end of each night to the same verse in the Koran: "God is with those who patiently persevere," it read.

Now Saira walked into the small room in their house that she had set aside for her niece, a nursery wallpapered in blue and pink. She straightened the children's books on the shelf. She set out some of her niece's favorite toys and then opened her closet.

The clothing rack was filled with dozens of outfits that had been recovered from Farook and Malik's apartment. Most of them were frilly dresses with the tags still attached, ranging in size from 9 months to 6 years. The couple had kept the clothes hidden in a suitcase, which the FBI had found in the closet of their apartment. At the same time as Farook and Malik had been stockpiling thousands of rounds of ammunition, they had also been assembling a future wardrobe for the child they did not plan to raise.

"Does any of this fit yet?" Farhan asked. He had followed Saira into the bedroom, but she didn't seem to hear him. She was sifting through the dresses and looking at the tags.

"Age four. Two. Three. Six," she said, reading the sizes. "What kind of parent makes plans to abandon their child? How were they capable of something like that and we didn't know?"

How could they have not known?

It was the question so many people had been asking ever since the shooting, and over time it had come to sound to Saira more like an accusation or an even an indictment: How could they not have known?

They had heard it in those first days from the FBI; and from friends at the mosque where Saira now sometimes felt isolated at Friday night prayers; and from parents in the drop-off line at their children's elementary school; and from a cousin in Chicago before he hung up and told them not to call again; and from so many strangers at grocery stores or restaurants that, for the first time in her life, Saira had begun traveling with one can of Mace in her car and another in her purse.

Worst of all, it was the same question they had also been asking themselves. Should they somehow have known? Did they miss out on clues?

When Farook started becoming increasingly conservative in his beliefs a decade before the shooting, eating only halal foods and saying he didn't believe in birthday parties, should that have somehow been a cause for alarm?

Or when he left their wedding celebration early in 2007 because he thought it was sinful to dance or listen to music, did that mean he was becoming a radical Islamist?

And when he started to complain vaguely about his office's annual Christmas party, should Saira somehow have concluded that her quietest, most gentle sibling - a man with no criminal record and no history of violence - was planning an attack?

They had not grown up in a particularly religious home. Their father, a truck driver who sometimes struggled to find stable work, rarely visited a mosque. Their mother had worked as a secretary and supported the family through moves to Pakistan, Illinois and California.

Saira was the oldest of four, and she had always considered Farook the most easygoing of her siblings — shy, dependable, always happy to babysit her children or change the oil in her car.

Not until he went to college did he begin growing out his beard, talking often about traditional Islamic law and searching online for a Muslim wife. He told the rest of the family that he wasn't looking for a beautiful woman, only a devout one.

After he met Malik online, he dissuaded his family from traveling to Saudi Arabia for their wedding in 2014.

Saira and Farhan hadn't gone, so they met Malik for the first time when she moved back with Farook to Riverside. She wore a full veil, and she rarely spoke. Whenever Saira and Farhan invited the newlywed couple to their house, Malik would sequester herself away from the men in one of the bedrooms, locking the door for privacy. Farook said it was for religious reasons, but Saira thought it was excessive and rude.

"Doesn't it seem like weird behavior?" she remembered saying to Farhan once.

"Don't worry about it," he told her, because he thought there were so many possible explanations. Malik didn't speak very much English. She was shy. She was new to the United States. She and Farook were newly married and wanted their privacy. "It will get better," Farhan said.

And then Malik became pregnant a few months into the marriage and had the baby, and in some ways things did get better. She texted Saira for advice on breast-feeding and infant sleep cycles. She started coming out of her room with the baby and visiting more freely.

When she said that she needed more rest and asked Saira to babysit, there was never any reason for Saira to wonder whether in fact maybe Malik was going to a shooting range.

When she asked Saira, who at the time was nursing her own daughter, to occasionally also breast-feed her niece, Saira agreed and regarded it as an honor. She never considered that perhaps it was because Malik was preparing the child to form an attachment with someone else.

So, on Dec. 2, when Saira heard about a shooting in San Bernardino, she turned on the TV news without ever beginning to consider that her brother might be involved. That was not in her mind when her mother called to say Farook and Malik had left the baby with her because of a doctor's appointment.

Not when her mother called back a few hours later to say the couple was still gone and the baby was getting hungry.

Not when her calls to Farook or Malik went directly to voice mail. Not when the TV news reported that the attack had begun at an office Christmas party.

Not even when her own cellphone began to ring over and over — until finally she answered one of the calls, from a journalist in New York.

"Did you know about this?" Saira was asked, for the first time.

By then the FBI had already arrived at Farook and Malik's apartment, where agents found Saira's mother and her hungry niece. It had been six hours since the last time the baby ate. She had never been away from her parents for more than a few hours, and she had never been fed from a bottle. She was crying as agents put her into a separate car, taking her first to an FBI office and then to San Bernardino CPS. Saira had tried to find her niece so that she could breast-feed her, but nobody would tell her where the baby was, so for the next several weeks Saira had sometimes heard the sound of a hungry baby crying in her sleep.

Reestablishing their bond

And now here the girl came into Saira's living room for one of her visits, wobbling toward Saira in a diaper, gray sweatpants and a pink shirt. Her hair was pulled back with a pink bow. She was 1 year and 5 months, and lately her face looked more and more like Malik's: light skin, dark eyes and a wide nose. She was giggling and stumbling toward Saira, walking toward a pile of toys. She tripped on a Lego and fell to the ground.

"Whoops," Saira said, reaching down to pick her up. She set the girl back on her feet and a few steps later she fell again.

"Careful," Saira said, but now her niece was laughing.

Saira had postponed a teaching internship and rearranged her class schedule to be available for these visits: two days each week, six hours each time, a schedule of playtime followed by lunch, then a nap, then a snack. Farhan was usually away at work, but Saira had yet to miss a visit. A caseworker had told her that what the girl needed most was consistency, and Saira also wanted to reestablish their bond.

She had seen the girl about once each week for the first six months of her life, but then, after the shooting, Saira had gone about two months without being able to see her. Finally she had been allowed to visit for an hour at a child-care office in Victorville, where a caretaker had handed her a girl that Saira barely recognized. She thought the baby's arms and legs had atrophied. The girl didn't smile much, and she didn't want to interact.

"How did she get like this?" Saira had asked, and over time she had learned from caseworkers and doctors what had happened to the girl in the weeks after the shooting. She had been given new caretakers through foster care. A new house. New bottles filled with formula. New siblings in her foster care home. New language, because her foster family spoke English and not Urdu. New security concerns, which meant that for a short time the girl had been called by an alias and disguised as a boy.

Saira had been told that at one point her niece had stopped gaining weight, so she had spent a few days in the hospital. Doctors had run a series of tests before concluding that the problem was essentially nutrition and stress. They had put the girl on a feeding schedule to double her calories, and her health had begun to improve.

"Ajao," Saira said to her now, using the Urdu word for "come here." The girl walked over and Saira handed her a piece of doughnut. "Small bites," she said.

For the first months after the shooting, their visits had been irregular and heavily supervised, until Saira began to feel as if her niece hardly knew her. "I am afraid she will completely forget us," Saira had written in an email to CPS, pleading for more time, and in May she had been given permission for in-home visits.

Saira thought the girl seemed happy at their house, playing with her cousins, and she had expected to be granted custody early in the fall. But instead there was still no decision or any information about when a decision might come in such a public and sensitive case, and so at each visit Saira's niece arrived with a sheet of instructions from the foster care family where she spent most of her time.

"Please make sure she gets her medicine today." "Don't cut her bangs." "She needs a good nap." Saira thought the foster family seemed to take good care of the girl, and she always did what they asked.

Now her niece was starting to fuss, so Saira made lunch. They ate together. They watched a cartoon. She put the girl down for a nap and watched on the monitor as she slept until it was time to leave. Their six hours were almost up, and Saira had to drop her niece back at the CPS office. She woke the girl and started loading everyone into the car. Her 3-year-old daughter was hungry. Her 8-year-old son wanted chips. Her niece was starting to cry, just like she often did when it was time to leave.

"Please," Saira said. "Everyone just cooperate."

She began to install the new car seat she had bought for her niece, but the straps were too tight. She readjusted the buckle and it still didn't fit. Now both of the girls were fussing.

"Cooperate," Saira said again, handing them crackers, and by the time she buckled her niece into the car seat and backed out of the driveway, they were running a few minutes late. The traffic was bad. The kids were fussy. Her daughter kept requesting more crackers. "Ugh. This traffic," Saira said, and she began to wonder: Would the caseworker notice if they were a little bit late? Would it show up in a report? Would it somehow affect their chances?

"We are a good family," Saira said, as she pulled onto the freeway.

"We didn't know anything," she said, as they passed the first sign for San Bernardino.

Traffic cleared and she pulled up to the CPS building on time. She lifted her niece out of the car as she whined in protest. Maybe she didn't want to leave. Maybe she just wanted another cracker. "It's OK," Saira said, pulling her close, and she carried her into the building.

'When are we going to tell her?'

Then it was quiet. She drove home and the children went into their rooms. The TV stayed off. Farhan came home from work and Saira sat with him, just the two of them in the kitchen, like it had been on so many nights during the last year.

They had always been the most social couple in their family up until the shooting. Saira had sometimes taught Sunday school at the mosque. Farhan had coached youth soccer and organized group lunches at his work. More than 500 people had attended their wedding, but it had taken more than three days after the terrorist attack for some of their friends to come visit. Saira had begun confiding mostly in a therapist, saying that she felt distrusted, misunderstood, secluded, alone - all of which brought her back to thinking about her niece, who Saira considered the most alone of all.

"When are we going to tell her about her parents?" Saira said now. It was a question she and Farhan asked themselves every few days.

"When she's older and when we have custody," he said "Thirteen? Sixteen?"

"How much does she really need to know?" Saira asked.

"Probably a lot," he said. "The whole story."

They sat for a few seconds and thought about what that conversation would require. They had saved some mementos from Farook and Malik's apartment to give to the girl some day - one of Malik's shawls, a purse, some jewelry and clothes. Everything else had been lost, destroyed or taken as evidence. Saira and Farhan had gone together to visit Farook and Malik's apartment a few days after the shooting, after the FBI and the media had already been through it, and the place was in utter disarray. There had been broken windows, dishes molding in the sink, baby blankets scattered across the living room and clean diapers lying on the floor.

"We should be the ones to tell her," Saira said. "Who else can understand?"

"We'll just keep it simple," Farhan said, as if such a thing were actually possible. "We'll say that they were her parents and they did something terrible,"

"Yes, and that she was just a baby," Saira said. "She didn't know anything."

It was getting late and her niece's toys were still spread across the house. Saira got up from the kitchen and went into the living room to start cleaning Legos and blocks. Her niece would be back soon for another of her regular visits, and for those six hours, at least, Saira wanted the girl to find everything in its place.