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San Bernardino victims had fled violence, extremism, poverty in Iran, Eritrea, Vietnam

San Bernardino victims had fled violence, extremism, poverty in Iran, Eritrea, Vietnam
San Bernardino shooting victims (Photos provided by friends and family)

An Eritrean emigre, who came to California in 2000 to escape violence. A mother of three from Iran, who fled Islamic extremism at 18. A county worker, whose mother brought her from Vietnam at 8, in search of stability. A Mexican immigrant, who sought to give his family a better life.

For four victims of the San Bernardino shootings, America seemed like a promise of safety.

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But on Wednesday, that hope disappeared when attackers carrying long guns rushed into a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center, killing 14.

By Friday, some of the shock had started to wear off, but the grief only deepened as new details of the victims, ages 26 to 60, emerged.

"It is the ultimate irony that her life would be stolen from her by what appears to be the same type of extremism that she fled so many years ago," the family of Bennetta Betbadal, 46, the Iranian immigrant, said in statement.

The family of Isaac Amanios, the 60-year-old Eritrean emigre, could relate.

"Nowhere is safe," his brother, Abraham, said.

Zeke Gebrekidane said his uncle was a family man who took pride in his college-aged children.

Amanios' wife is a registered nurse at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, which tended to some of the wounded.

Another victim was Shannon Johnson, 45, who loved to collect images.

He had them tattooed on much of his body: One of his first wife, another of each of his grandfathers. One of his dad, who died in a grain silo accident in Georgia when Johnson was a boy. He was planning to get another soon of his girlfriend, Mandy Pifer.

The couple had been together for three years, she said, and had recently decided to get married.

Johnson's Koreatown apartment was a museum to his life.

Framed concert posters lined the living room walls and a collage of business cards hung above the toilet. They were mostly from truck stops — mementos from his days as an 18-wheel driver, before he finished college and settled into a job with the public health department in San Bernardino County, Pifer said.

Johnson — a Christian who, Pifer said, dabbled in Hinduism — loved the department for its diversity, and often recounted friendly conversations about religion with Syed Rizwan Farook, a fellow restaurant inspector.

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Authorities have named Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, as the attackers, and on Friday federal law enforcement officials said that Farook had ties to two terrorist organizations overseas and that his wife had pledged allegiance to Islamic State on Facebook.

"It was like a little United Nations," Pifer said of her boyfriend's workplace. "There were people of all religions and races there."

Stephanie Rose Baldwin posted on Facebook saying that Johnson had helped save the life of her sister, Denise Peraza.

"This angel of a man was sitting next to my sister when the shooting happened," she wrote. "He helped protect her from the bullets and we are so grateful for his heroic love."

For surviving victims, grief compounded even as they healed.

"She's recovering very well, but still going through emotional trauma," said Salihin Kondoker, whose wife, Anies, was shot in the stomach and arms.

After her release from the hospital, her mind raced with thoughts of returning to work. Now, it would be without her best friend, Tin Nguyen, who was killed.

She "keeps on thinking, how is she going to see the office, the empty office, empty cubicles?" Salihin Kondoker said.

On Friday, family and friends filled the Santa Ana home that Nguyen, 31, shared with her mother and brother. Her uncle said his children will always treasure the last text they got from her, in which she was helping to plan a holiday trip to Las Vegas. A way to bring everybody together.

"Love continues," he said softly.

Juan Espinoza, the youngest of 12 siblings, left Guadalajara and the biology degree he was pursuing to join his sister in St. Louis in the 1980s.

He had only planned to improve his English. Instead, he fell in love.

When Sandra Mendoza rejoined her family in California, Espinoza followed, his nephew Daniel Castaneda said. The couple married and had a baby girl.

The young family soon moved back to Sonora, where Espinoza and his sister opened a broom factory. But when Mexico devalued the peso in 1994 and interest rates shot up, obtaining loans for a new business became almost impossible, Castaneda said. The family left the factory, moved back to California and settled in Indio.

He worked as a youth corrections officer in Indio—a job he loved because he had gotten into trouble occasionally when he was a kid, Castaneda said.

"He was always a person that liked giving advice and passing on his knowledge and his experience," Castaneda wrote in an email. "He... always tried to help people find their way."

When Castaneda got married, he recalled, Espinoza pulled him aside and said, "Son, now you are a family man. Now, whatever you do, you have to think for the good of you and your kids in the future."

"That's what he instilled in all of us, always," Castaneda said. "Study, work hard, and always keep your family first."

Espinoza worked for the Department of Corrections and paid his way through school at Cal State San Bernardino, where he graduated with a bachelor's of science, Castaneda said.

"He would have been able to provide for his family anywhere he had decided to settle," Castaneda said. "But he was also a very analytical and smart person, and he knew that moving to the U.S. had more things to offer for his family."

John Chapman, who lived next door to Juan Espinoza for nearly two decades, said he was heartbroken by his neighbor's death.

"I probably spent more time talking to him than anybody except my wife," he said. "He was a good man."

On the concrete landing of a porch in Upland, where victim Harry Bowman, 46, lived, there was an unopened package. His mother, Marion, had sent it via priority express mail from Pennsylvania.

It was full of Christmas presents.

Times staff writers Ben Poston, Matt Hamilton, Sarah Parvini, Soumya Karlamangla and Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.

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