back to top

A Teenager Who Fled His Home In Syria Drowned On His First Visit To A California Beach

The 17-year-old had just moved to the San Diego area with his family a few weeks ago after escaping ongoing violence in his war-torn home of Aleppo.

Posted on

It was his first time at the beach.

Mohamed al-Mustafa begged his parents to let him go with his new friends, promising his mother he wouldn't go into the water, since he didn't know how to swim.

The 17-year-old had just moved to the area with his parents and four sisters a few weeks ago after escaping ongoing violence in his war-torn home of Aleppo and living in a refugee camp for 18 months. He was just settling into El Cajon Valley High School, trying to learn English and meet friends in his new home outside of San Diego. He wanted to join the military.

On Sunday evening, the Syrian refugee was last seen wading into the waves at a San Diego beach.

Rescue teams are still searching for the teen, who is believed to have drowned after being caught in a powerful rip current, Marine Safety Lieutenant John Sandmeyer told BuzzFeed News. Diver and helicopter crews have been called off.

Mohamed's parents finally agreed to let him go after he promised to keep in touch. He FaceTimed with his dad while eating pizza with a few of his new Syrian friends, the San Diego Tribune reported.

Husam al-Mustafa and his five children were still adjusting into their new life in America, having just arrived a few weeks earlier with only two suitcases and knowing no English.

That FaceTime chat was the last time he saw his son.

The teen disappeared at about 6 p.m. that evening after he and his friends wandered down the shore before going into the water, Sandmeyer said.

Mohamed couldn't swim, said Lisa Attardo, who helped sponsor the family with the St. Thomas More Catholic Church.

"He got into one of the worst locations," Sandmeyer said. "They had gone away from the main beach area where there were no lifeguards and there were strong winds and big waves that afternoon."

A lifeguard saw the boys from afar and quickly ran over, Sandmeyer said. It looked as if Mohamed was trying to help one friend as the guard arrived.

"He went in and got pulled in so quickly no one was able to even see him," Sandmeyer explained. One boy was rescued and the other two got out on their own.

His mother in "inconsolable," Attardo wrote in an update on the church's site.

Mohamed and his family fled Aleppo in May 2014, the church said. They registered in Turkey as refugees in June 2015 and lived in a refugee camp for 18 months until they arrived in San Diego just a few weeks ago.

After enduring four years of war and daily vetting at the refugee camp, the al-Mustafa family finally moved into their own apartment, furnished sparsely with church donations, in El Cajon, a suburb that is a burgeoning home to many refugees. About 1,140 Syrian refugees have settled in the San Diego since 2014, according to the Tribune.

They have 90 days to be self-sufficient, quickly taking in how to use the public transportation system, enroll their children in school, and learning English. Mohamed's mom is a seamstress and Husam, Mohamed's father, was an accountant in Syria and is currently looking for a job to support his five children. Mohamed's two older sisters are striving to get into college.

"They had a plan for their future ... and great prospects for success," Robert Moser, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "They suffered a lot. They made many sacrifices. They know what they need to do to survive."

Mohamed played soccer and loved photography, and was enjoying getting to go to a regular high school, the AP said.

“He didn’t have a childhood because of the war in Syria,” his father, Husam told the Tribune through a translator on Tuesday. The family came to America hoping there would be “a better future for him in the United States."

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the family.

Brianna Sacks is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Brianna Sacks at brianna.sacks@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.