SAN BERNARDINO, California (AP) -- Isaac Amanios left Eritrea after fighting for its independence. Bennetta Bet-Badal endured harassment for her Christian faith in Iran. Tin Thanh Nguyen fled Vietnam as a child after the country's long war.
For each, immigrating to the U.S. meant finding a refuge from fear. They built lives in California communities that their families chose, in part, for their safety.
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 Connecticut three years ago. The FBI is investigating Wednesday's 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 home, where mourners could be heard wailing inside. "The way his life ended is very tragic."
Amanios, 60, Bet-Badal, 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 co-worker who stormed the group's holiday luncheon and opened fire with his wife was another part of that diverse community: Syed Farook, 28, was born in Chicago to Pakistani parents, grew up and attended college in California and was the father of a 6-month-old girl.
San Bernardino was a world away from Eritrea, the East African country that Amanios knew as home. He was born to a family of farmers but 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 and remaining in Eritrea through its independence in 1993. In 2000, he traveled to the U.S. and visited relatives in San Bernardino.
"As a family, we were always afraid for him," Gebreselassie said. "We begged him to stay here." Human rights groups call Eritrea one of the world's most repressive governments.
Amanios grudgingly agreed, settling into life in suburban Los Angeles with his wife and three children and easily passing the health inspector certification exam. He was convinced he had left the threat of violence behind.
"We're probably more protected than any country in the world," Amanios told Gebreselassie 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 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.
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 Tin Nguyen, family always came first. She lived with her mother, and on the morning of the rampage was engaged in a group text with about 20 cousins about a mountain cabin trip she wanted to plan.
Her cousins filled her mother's home on Saturday, 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."