SAN DIEGO — A 17-year-old boy adjusting to a new life as a refugee in the United States after fleeing war-torn Syria with his parents and four sisters is presumed dead after disappearing in the ocean on his first trip to the beach.
Mohammed al-Mustafa pleaded for permission to join friends on the beach, promising his mother he wouldn’t go in the water, family friend Lisa Attardo said Wednesday.
Mohammed couldn’t swim, according to Attardo, who believes the boy may have been knocked down Sunday in knee-deep ocean water. There were strong rip currents at San Diego’s popular Mission Beach.
Rescue workers, with help from helicopters, searched for the boy over three days. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported there were no efforts planned Wednesday.
The family arrived in San Diego in January, having fled the town of Aleppo in 2014 for Turkey, where they sought to become refugees in the United States, said Robert Moser, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, which helped the family resettle. They lived in a sparsely furnished apartment in El Cajon, a suburb of about 100,000 people that is a top destination for refugees from Iraq and, more recently, Syria.
Mohammed’s father hoped to land a job in accounting, his profession in Syria. His mother, a seamstress, hoped to find work sewing wedding dresses.
Mohammed’s older sisters, 19 and 21, were taking English classes to prepare for college. Mohammed and his younger sisters, 11 and 5, were in school.
Moser called them “a poster family for what refugees are all about.”
“They had a plan for their future … and great prospects for success,” he said Wednesday. “They suffered a lot. They made many sacrifices. They know what they need to do to survive.”
Mohammed, a budding photographer who liked soccer, overcame his mother’s resistance to letting him go to the beach with four friends on Sunday, saying he wanted to be with friends, said Attardo. He checked in as promised.
Attardo and her husband co-ordinated parishioner efforts at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Oceanside to help the family settle. They donated dish soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and shampoo.
On Sunday, they delivered a sewing machine for Mohammed’s mother and a microwave oven. They watched the family talk with Mohammed on FaceTime about a half-hour before he is believed to have been swept away in the ocean.
His parents wanted to know if he would be home for dinner. The boy said he and his friends were eating pizza on the beach.
“He really wanted to fit in with his buddies in high school,” Attardo said.
The family led a comfortable life in Aleppo before war struck. The father told The San Diego Union-Tribune on Tuesday that the family witnessed bombings and had friends and neighbours who were killed.
“He didn’t have a childhood because of the war in Syria,” he told the newspaper through a translator.
The teen’s body hasn’t been recovered.