Lifeguard surface search team returning to base at Mission Beach in San Diego.
Mohammed al-Mustafa was last seen wading into the waves at a San Diego beach on Sunday evening, believed to have drowned after being caught in a powerful rip current. It was the Syrian refugee's first time playing in the ocean.
The 17-year-old had just moved to the US with his parents and four sisters a few weeks ago after escaping his war-torn home of Aleppo and living in a refugee camp.
Rescue teams are still searching for the teen “by water and land,” Marine Safety Lieutenant John Sandmeyer told BuzzFeed News on Thursday, though they have called off diver and helicopter crews.
Mohammed had begged his parents to let him go to the beach with four of his Syrian friends, promising to keep in touch, the San Diego Tribune reported. The group had been eating pizza on the sand when Mohammed FaceTimed with his dad, who wanted to know if he'd be home for dinner.
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.
Mohammed 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 Mohammed 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.
Mohammed 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 Southern California just a few weeks ago.
They moved into an apartment furnished sparsely with church donations in El Cajon, a San Diego suburb that is burgeoning home to many refugees. About 1,140 Syrian refugees have settled in the San Diego since 2014, according to the Tribune.
The family is still trying to learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible, the church noted. Husan, Mohammed's father, was an accountant in Syria and is currently looking for a job to support his family. His wife is a seamstress and his two older daughters are taking English classes to prepare for 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.”
Mohammed played soccer and loved photography, and was looking forward to just fitting in in high school, Attardo told the Associated Press
“He didn’t have a childhood because of the war in Syria,” his father, Husan al-Mustafa, 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.”