SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.—Isaac Amanios dodged bullets in Eritrea’s war for independence. Bennetta Bet-Badal endured bullying and harassment for her Christian faith in Iran. Tin Thanh Nguyen fled Vietnam with her mother as a child in the violent aftermath of the country’s long war.
For each, immigrating to the U.S. meant finding a refuge from fear. They built lives in suburban California communities that their families chose, in part, for their safety. Each found jobs with the San Bernardino County health department, inspecting restaurants, hotels and bars and ensuring they were safe for the public.
In a cruel twist, all three were killed in the nation’s deadliest mass shooting since the slaughter of 26 children and adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago. The FBI is investigating the rampage that left 14 dead and 21 injured as a terrorist attack.
“He’s had so many mishaps, but he made it here,” Fessehatsion Gebreselassie, Amanios’ uncle, said Saturday outside his nephew’s two-story home decorated with Christmas lights, where mourners could be heard wailing inside. “The way his life ended is very tragic.”
Amanios, 60, Bet-Bada, 46, and Nguyen, 31, were a microcosm of the department they worked in: a group of health inspectors so diverse one colleague dubbed them a “little United Nations.” The victims hailed from nearly every region of the world and all walks of life — newly minted graduates, young parents and seasoned workers on the verge of retirement.
The co-worker who stormed the group’s holiday luncheon and opened fire with his wife had seemed to be just another part of that diverse assemblage: Syed Farook, 28, was born in Chicago to Pakistani parents, grew up and attended college in Southern California, and was the father of a 6-month-old girl.
Each day, the team inspected an array of pizza shops, gas station convenience stores and hotel pools across San Bernardino County 50 miles east of Los Angeles, a place that was hit hard by the recession and whose welcoming sign reads, “Seize the Advantage.”
San Bernardino was a world away from Eritrea, the East African country along the Red Sea that Amanios knew as home. He was born to a family of farmers who lived in mud and stone huts. His father could not read or write but was a community leader and selected to be a judge when Amanios was 5.
Following the appointment, Amanios moved with his father to Mendefera, a city of 25,000. Amanios excelled in school and was one of the few students to pass the university entrance exam, said Gebreselassie, who was raised with Amanios like a brother.
Amanios enrolled but left after a year to join the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and fight for independence from Ethiopia.
“He was part of the battle for years,” said Robel Tekleah, his brother-in-law. “And bullets never caught him.”
Amanios fled to Sudan, working as an interpreter at a U.S.-run resettlement camp for refugees, before returning to manage a food processing plant. He remained in Eritrea through its independence in 1993. In 2000, he traveled to the U.S. and visited relatives in San Bernardino, where an older brother had received a scholarship to attend Loma Linda University.
“As a family, we were always afraid for him,” Gebreselassie said. “We begged him to stay here.”
Amanios grudgingly agreed, settling into life in suburban Los Angeles with his wife and three children and easily passing the health inspector certification exam. Leaving his job and relatives in Eritrea was difficult, but ultimately he was drawn by the prospect of a better future for his children, Gebreselassie said. He was also convinced he had left the threat of violence behind.
“We’re probably more protected than any country in the world,” Amanios told Gebreselassi in one of their last conversations, which touched on the Paris extremist attacks.
Bet-Badal’s path to San Bernardino was tumultuous, too. Born in Tehran, she fled with her family to the U.S. when she was 18, escaping Islamic extremism and Christian persecution following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, relatives said. She lived in New York City before settling in California, where she went to school, married a police officer and had three children.
She quickly adjusted to life in the U.S. but maintained links to her past, teaching the Aramaic language at a church. At the health department, she was responsible for inspecting restaurants and businesses before they opened, a job relatives said she loved.
On the morning of the attack, she was excitedly preparing for a presentation and exchanging texts with her husband about Christmas gifts.
“They both work hard to provide for their families,” her cousin, Adrina Mar-Elia, said. “And in four or five minutes, it’s all gone.”
In Vietnam, Nguyen and her mother watched as communism gripped their country. The family’s farm was ransacked, relatives said, and their property seized.
Those weren’t memories Nguyen, who arrived in California at age 8, often spoke about, said Jimmy Nguyen, one of a close-knit group of 30 cousins who considered her their leader.
He said the family settled in Orange County because “we felt it was a safe place to call home.”
For Nguyen, family always came first. She lived with her mother, and on the Wednesday morning of the shooting rampage was engaged in a group text with about 20 cousins about a mountain cabin trip she wanted to plan.
On Saturday, her cousins filled her mother’s Santa Ana home, where bouquets and two large framed portraits of a smiling Nguyen were placed alongside a table of candles.
“She was the glue that held everyone together,” Jimmy Nguyen said. “No one can replace her.”