A 17-year-old Syrian who fled Aleppo is feared to have drowned in San Diego during his first trip to a beach

Mohammed al Mustafa and his family escaped the terror and destruction of war-torn Aleppo, Syria, and they settled several weeks ago in El Cajon, ready to start a new life.

But now his parents and four sisters are mourning the 17-year-old, who is believed to have drowned Sunday after being caught in a rip current off Mission Beach in San Diego. His body hasn’t been recovered.

“He didn’t have a childhood because of the war in Syria,” his father, Husan al Mustafa, said through a translator. The family came to America hoping there would be “a better future for him in the United States.”


In San Diego, Mohammed was just getting accustomed to his new surroundings, buoyed in part by the region’s close Syrian community.

He had pleaded with his parents to let him go on the beach outing with four buddies. Promising to keep in close contact, he later spoke via FaceTime with his father from the beach, where the teens ate pizza and drank soda on the shore.

“He was a good boy,” family friend Lisa Attardo said Tuesday. “He knew his parents were worried.”

At some point, the group ventured into the water.

It was Mohammed’s first time, ever, at a beach, his father said. He was last seen wading knee- or waist-deep in the waves.

He was a good boy. He knew his parents were worried.

— Lisa Attardo, a family friend

Fire officials said it appears the boy and another teen were pulled into the strong rip current about 6 p.m. Lifeguards spotted the other teen struggling and pulled him to the beach, but they never saw Mohammed. Once on shore, the group told lifeguards their friend was missing.

Lifeguards, with help from a police helicopter, searched the area until it got too dark but couldn’t locate the teen. Authorities believe he was submerged by the current.

“It was pulling really strong, and it gets very deep very quick,” San Diego lifeguard Capt. James Gartland said.

On Tuesday, search efforts resumed, with maritime agencies using boats equipped with sonar to scour the bottom of the ocean. A helicopter also flew over the area in search of the boy’s body, with no success. No further searches were planned.

The family held out hope that Mohammed might have returned to shore and wandered away, perhaps disoriented, but that hope was fading.

The teen’s mother is “inconsolable,” said Attardo, who attends St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Oceanside, which for weeks has been helping the family get settled in their new home.

San Diego County has a growing community of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war that has raged in their country since 2011.

Since 2014, about 1,140 Syrian refugees have arrived in the region. Many have settled in El Cajon or City Heights.

Like many of the others, Husan al Mustafa and his family fled their home as the violence grew.

“It was really dangerous to live in Aleppo,” he said through an interpreter. The family witnessed “bombings and violence” and had friends and neighbors who were killed, he said.

Al Mustafa, an accountant, said he and his family escaped in mid-2014 to Turkey, where they were able to rent a home. About a year later, they registered there as refugees.

He said the family wanted to leave Turkey “because of Mohammed. … He was really young, but he could not study there.”

After roughly 18 months of intense vetting, they were allowed to come to the U.S., sponsored by the Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego. The family arrived Jan. 24.

At St. Thomas More, Father Mike Ratajczak and Sister Maureen Brown invited parishioners to help the family. The congregation has donated cash, household supplies, and a sewing machine and fabric for Mohammed’s mother, who is a seamstress.

One parishioner offered a van for the family to use, and another volunteered to help Mohammed’s older sister with her goal of entering college in the fall.

Attardo and her husband led the push to gather donations and have visited with the family often. She said they are hardworking and generous, always smiling.

“Their house is full of laughter,” Attardo said. “A lot of love in this family. A lot of love.”

Their father, who like the rest of the family is still learning English, is eager to find a job and become self-sufficient, Brown said.

She said that when Ratajczak has asked Al Mustafa what was needed, he replied that they could either give him a fish or teach him to be a fisherman — and he wanted to be a fisherman.

On Sunday, the Attardos had driven down to El Cajon to visit and hand off donations. They spent a few hours there and watched as the father spoke via FaceTime to Mohammed at the beach.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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7:10 p.m.: This article has been updated with more information about the family’s life in the U.S.

This article was originally published at 10:55 a.m.