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Immigrant families' dreams shattered by bullets

All came from faraway lands, drawn by America's promises. And they died, in a burst of bullets, because they were together in a place that nurtured their dreams.
Relatives of shooting victims Lan Ho and Long Huynh pray outside the American Civic Association on Sunday, April 5, in Binghamton, New York.
Relatives of shooting victims Lan Ho and Long Huynh pray outside the American Civic Association on Sunday, April 5, in Binghamton, New York. Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Part-time caseworker Maria Zobniw was to have the day off, but the call came from the immigrant assistance center that extra help was needed, and off she went.

An immigrant from Ukraine, she shared a profound bond with a group of clients gathering there for citizenship and English lessons: All came from faraway lands, drawn by America's promises. And they died, in a burst of bullets, because they were together in a place that nurtured their dreams.

Along with Zobniw and an English teacher, 11 students — ranging in age from 22 to 57 — were killed Friday when an embittered gunman opened fire in the American Civic Association.

Four of the victims were from China, two from Haiti, one each from Pakistan, Brazil and Vietnam. One was a Filipino who came to Binghamton as the wife of the man who'd been her pen pal. Another was mother-of-three Layla Khalil, who, according to her family, survived car bombings near their house in Baghdad.

"She came out of all of these things and went to Jordan. And in Binghamton, no one would think — it's a mystery of the story," said Imam Kasim Kopuz. "It makes us very sad that this is the way it happened."

'Lay down! Lay down!'
Long Huynh and his wife, Lan Ho, who emigrated from Vietnam with their two children in 2007, were taking an English class together when gunman Jiverly Wong burst into the room and started shooting, a relative, Met Tran, said Sunday.

Huynh threw his arms around his wife in a vain attempt to shield her, yelling "Lay down! Lay down!" She was fatally shot, while he suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his arm, jaw and chest.

Huynh's sister, Tina Nguyen, 28, said that when Huynh awoke from surgery, "he tell us immediately, 'Don't lie to me, I know my wife is dead. She was dead in my arms.'"

The couple's children, an 11-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, weren't immediately told their mother had been killed.

"They're asking, 'Where my mom? Why don't Mom come home?'" Tran said. "I don't know how to tell them."

Not a spontaneous act
The shooting began about 10:30 a.m. Friday, but it was no spontaneous act. Wong wore body armor and strode through the association's front door only after parking his car to block the back door. He knew the layout — until last month he'd been taking English lessons there.

Armed with two legally acquired handguns — a 9 mm and a .45-caliber — he shot two receptionists, killing one, then moved on to the classroom where he claimed 12 more victims and killed himself before any confrontation with police.

The receptionist who survived, 61-year-old Shirley DeLucia, played dead, then called 911 despite her injuries and stayed on the line. But hers wasn't the first emergency call — others came minutes earlier, in broken English, from some of the students terrified by the sudden sound of gunfire.

Police were on the scene in minutes, but delayed their entry into the building while trying to assess what they thought might be a hostage situation. A SWAT team entered at 11:13 a.m., 43 minutes after the first call to police, though students and teachers taking refuge in the basement waited more than an hour longer before being evacuated.

"The shooting was over by the time we got there," said Police Chief Joseph Zikuski. "If some crazy lunatic decides to pick up a gun and go some place and start shooting people, I really don't have the answer ... that could prevent anything like that."

Officers took no chances when they did start evacuating people, restraining some of them with plastic ties around their wrists because they fit the description of the gunman.

Charles Lifrantz, 42, a Haitian who's been in Binghamton since January 2008, hid with others in the boiler room.

"Everybody was scared," he said. "If they came to that room, nobody would be alive. That room is too small. Nobody can run away."

'They were trying to keep silent'
Also in the boiler room was Abdelhak Ettouri, 49, who emigrated from Morocco last year and works as a barber and port laborer.

"No crying but afraid," he said of the mood among the several dozen students and staff in the room. "They were confused. They were scared. They don't want to yell so the person would not hear outside. They were trying to keep silent."

"I was never expecting that would happen here (in the United States)," he said. "I was watching those things in TV and movies. I wasn't thinking America — something like this."

Unlike the students at the association's classes, Maria Zobniw, 60, came to the United States as child — acquiring fluent English and the gift of helping others. She had attended Harpur College, now Binghamton University, and taught Ukrainian to children of fellow immigrants.

"She knew how difficult it is for people to get adjusted and she knew several languages," said her husband, Lubomyr Zobniw. "She saw it as her mission to help."

Maria Zobniw was at the reception desk when Wong burst in. In an adjacent classroom, 72-year-old Roberta King was teaching English.

Dr. Jeffrey King, one of her 10 children, said his mother brimmed with interests ranging from the opera to the local preservation society to collecting dolls by the thousands. He recollected a recent conversation in which he told her to enjoy retirement.

"I said, 'Mom, you're in your 70s,'" King said. "She said, 'What? You don't think I enjoy working?'"

'She wanted to work very badly'
Among King's pupils was Dolores Yigal, 53, who emigrated from the Philippines about a year ago after marrying Binghamton resident Omri Yigal, her pen pal.

She loved children and studied English in hopes of getting some sort of job where she could work with them.

"She was the most happy when I agreed that she could work," said her husband. "She wanted to work very badly."

At his modest home, Yigal showed photographs of the two of them posing in a park in Manila. He recalled the first time he visited her in the Philippines — and was disappointed that her hair was straight, not curled as in photos she had sent him. Soon, the curls returned.

Layla Khalil, 57, came to the U.S. with her husband and three children after surviving car bombings near their house in Baghdad.

Her children include a son who is doctoral student at the Sorbonne in Paris, a daughter who is a Fulbright Scholar at Binghamton University and a son in high school. Her husband of 31 years, Samir Khalil, is a linguist who speaks three languages but couldn't find words to describe his pain.

"Feeling cannot be expressed about this situation because something unbelievable happened," he said.

His wife was a librarian in Iraq and an avid student of English. She loved coming to the civic center to study English and learn about the cultures of other students.

The son in high school, 17-year-old Mustafa Alsalihi, said losing his mother was devastating.

"The situation in Iraq is dangerous but we came here on the hope we'd be in a better place out of danger," he said. "It's peaceful."

When will we say 'enough is enough?'
On Sunday morning, the Rev. Arthur Suggs, pastor at the First Congregational Church next door to the immigrant center, abandoned his scheduled sermon to address the shooting.

"I have seen clergy on TV attempting to say something meaningful following Columbine, following Virginia Tech," he told congregants. "I have seen clergy attempt to make some sense out of what is inherently senseless. And now it's my turn."

He urged people to follow the example of the Amish, who quickly embraced the family of a gunman who killed five girls at a Pennsylvania schoolhouse in 2006. And he decried a culture that he said has become desensitized to violence.

"When will we as a culture say enough is enough?" he said.