Binghamton Victims Shared a Dream of Living Better Lives
New York Times
April 5, 2009


BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — One was a woman who survived three bombings in her native Iraq. Another was a never-say-retired grandmother of 17 who volunteered at her synagogue. One was a homemaker from the Philippines, a lifelong seamstress who carried an oval medallion in her pocket that her father had given her to protect her from harm.

Two days after one of New York State’s deadliest mass shootings, residents of Binghamton and the nearby towns and villages gathered for memorial services to grieve 13 slain men and women, as the city released the identities of all the victims.

On Friday morning, a 41-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, Jiverly Wong, armed with two handguns, burst into the American Civic Association, an immigration services center where he had until recently been taking classes to improve his English. Mr. Wong shot and killed 13 immigrant students and association workers, wounded four others and then committed suicide.

The dead were from all points of the globe: Two were from the United States, four were from China, two — husband and wife — were from Haiti, one was from Vietnam, one from Iraq, one from Brazil, one from the Philippines and one from Pakistan. On Sunday afternoon, two of the victims — Layla Khalil, 57, and Parveen Ali, 26 — were buried following a funeral at the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier that drew around 300 mourners. Later, people packed a middle school for an interfaith memorial service.

The police released new details about Mr. Wong, but were still trying to understand his motive.

Joseph Zikuski, Binghamton’s chief of police, said that Mr. Wong came to the Binghamton area in the late 1980s but went back and forth between New York and California. In 1992, Mr. Wong was convicted of a misdemeanor for forgery. He became a naturalized citizen in November 1995 and the next year received a license to own a handgun in Broome County. He also received a handgun license in California, Chief Zikuski said.

Mr. Wong married and divorced in California, but the police had yet to locate his ex-wife.

Elisabeth Hayes, 62, Mr. Wong’s English as a second language teacher at the association, said Mr. Wong had enrolled in her class at the end of January and attended off and on until dropping out in early March. She estimated that he came to class 10 to 15 times. “He came sporadically; he didn’t come regularly,” she said. “Then he just stopped coming.”

Ms. Hayes said she did not know why, adding that though he was never teased in class, he did not say much. “He wasn’t there long enough to establish a relationship with him,” she said. “Nothing I detected would make me think he would do this.”

Ms. Hayes was on vacation on Friday, and her class was being taught by a substitute teacher, Roberta King.

After shooting two receptionists, Mr. Wong walked into his old classroom and opened fire. He either killed or wounded everyone in the room, including Ms. King, before committing suicide inside the room, the police said.

Ms. Hayes described Mr. Wong as “fragile” and “introspective.” She says that she corrects every student’s English; some appreciate it and some do not. Mr. Wong was among those who did not.

Two miles from the scene of the shooting, the bodies of the two Muslim women lay on stretchers inside burgundy body bags outside a mosque in Johnson City. Mourners stood in rows as Imam Kasim Kopuz led the prayers.

Mrs. Khalil, the native of Iraq, was a librarian and the mother of three children: a daughter who had recently completed a master’s degree at Binghamton University; a son who was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris; and another son, Mustafa Alsalihi, a student at Binghamton High School.

“She was to come to my graduation this year,” said Mustafa, 17. “She said, ‘I want to see you graduate in America.’ ”

Mrs. Khalil’s husband, Samir Alsalihi, 63, a visiting professor at Binghamton University, said his wife of 31 years had a passion for learning and had enrolled in the class to improve her English and socialize with people from other cultures. “I miss her,” he said.

Mrs. Khalil had immigrated from Jordan seven months ago after fleeing the violence in Iraq, said Ehtisham Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier. “That’s one of the ironies of the situation,” Mr. Siddiqui said. “Her husband was just telling me how they were so happy to be in such a peaceful place at last.”

Ms. Ali came to the United States from northern Pakistan seven years ago. Her brother, Nadar Ali, 24, said his sister hoped to become a teacher. “She was like a parent, like a friend,” Mr. Ali said. “She coached me to go to school, be successful, go to college, be someone.”

He and his sister were planning to visit Niagara Falls on Saturday. “Just to see it,” he said.

Far from the services, the day of grieving unfolded in more private, somber ways for relatives of the dead.

Omri Yigal, 53, the husband of Dolores Yigal, also 53, the homemaker from the Philippines, was preparing to leave the house on St. John Avenue that they had shared. He said he was going to the hospital where his wife’s body lay to wash her. He put her wedding dress and her favorite shampoo in bags.

It had been almost three years since they were married. Mr. Yigal, a native of Alabama, met her in 2006 on a matchmaking Web site where she had posted an ad looking for someone who was “kind, faithful, loyal, friendly, American, Canadian, Japanese.”

“Anything so long as it had a pulse,” Mr. Yigal said the couple joked later.

They met for the first time in Manila in September 2006. A week later, they were married.

In Binghamton, they led a quiet life. She stayed home for most of the day, washing clothes by hand, ironing Mr. Yigal’s T-shirts and boxer shorts. She enrolled, reluctantly, at the association for English classes, the first step to finding work, maybe as a baby sitter or a classroom aide, he said.

On most days, she got up as early as 5 a.m. for her 9 a.m. class. She made enough oatmeal — sprinkled with apple bits and raisins — for both of them. Before she left for class, she usually wandered up to the bedroom to give her husband a kiss. On Friday, for some reason, she did not.

Mr. Yigal learned of the shooting when he overheard people on the street talking about the attack. He ran through the rain to a waiting area for families, and a man said he had seen Ms. Yigal leave the building alive. Mr. Yigal cheered and jumped into the air.

When she did not appear, he began to worry. On Saturday evening, the police came to his door to tell him that his wife had been identified as one of the victims. On Sunday morning, Mr. Yigal ate the couple’s special oatmeal, and wondered if he would find the medallion her father gave her in her clothes at the hospital. “I lost everything,” Mr. Yigal said. “She is my friend, my lover, my partner and my wife.”

The two victims identified as being from the United States worked at the association — Ms. King, 72, the grandmother of 17, and Maria K. Zobniw, 60. The other victims were all students: the Haitian couple, Marc Henry Bernard, 44, and Maria Sonia Bernard, 46; Li Guo, 47, from China; Hong Xiu Mao, 35, from China; Lan Ho, 39, from Vietnam; Hai Hong Zhong, 54, from China; Almir O. Alves, 43, from Brazil; and Jiang Ling, 22, from China.

Ms. Zobniw was not supposed to be at the association on Friday. The daughter of Ukrainian parents, Ms. Zobniw planned to spend the day baking pastries for Easter. But when she got a call seeking translation help, she got in a car.

Ms. Zobniw, who had four children, worked at the association five years, correcting homework for Ukrainian immigrants and translating birth certificates. “She never said ‘I can’t,’ ” said Iryna Tkhoryk, a friend.

Mr. Alves was a math expert, said Ms. Hayes, his teacher at the association. She said that a survivor told her that Mr. Alves threw a chair at Mr. Wong during the attack, trying to stop him. “He is an unsung hero,” she said.

The Bernards had a son in middle school and a girl in elementary school, according to neighbors at their apartment in Endicott.

Mr. Bernard walked them to the bus stop every morning and was waiting there when they got home. In between he took English classes at the civic association, returning home with notebooks scribbled with lessons, said Leroy Jackson, the building manager. Mr. Bernard had been laid off from a manufacturing job about four months earlier. His wife worked at a McDonald’s a few blocks away.

Still, perhaps because of the language barrier, neighbors knew little about them. “I don’t know what they hoped to do,” Mr. Jackson said, “but I know these were the kind of people you want in this country.”