"There are still some things that are in my memory, things I cannot forget," said Mohammad in his native Arabic, "like the war that is happening, the airstrikes and the people dying in front of me."
17-year-old Mohammad was forced to flee his home in Damascus, Syria after the vicious civil war disrupted life in the city. He had been in the U.S. for only four months, living in an apartment with his mother — who fled alongside him. His father was killed in the bloodshed.
Mohammad described the daily situation back home in graphic detail. "There was bombing on all sides, from the army and other groups. They would attack people like me, civilians, in their homes. We would hear the airstrikes. We would go outside and see dead people," he said.
Mohammad is one of 626 refugees resettled in El Cajon, an impoverished suburb of San Diego. The 100,000-strong population is poverty-stricken and predominantly white. It was dubbed the "Medellin of Meth" by the LA Times in the late 1990s, for the epidemic levels of methamphetamine addiction among its residents.
El Cajon became a magnet for refugees after Chaldean Christians fled persecution in Iraq during the 1970s, and their Arabic imprint is felt throughout the small town. Makeshift mosques and Iraqi restaurants dot the city, amid aging rifles stores and the innumerable fast-food joints.
In late 2015, the federal government partnered with local agencies to take on the resettlement challenge. These agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee, determined that the existing Arab population in El Cajon, however small, would help Syrian refugees adjust to their new home. As of November 2016, El Cajon had taken more refugees than any other city in the country.
Abdelhady Masry and his family fled Aleppo, Syria's most devastated theatre of war, just over a month ago. Masry, who rented an apartment in Turkey before finding refuge in the U.S., was simply grateful to be within safety.
"Thank God, the situation here has been excellent. It was a very welcoming reception by the Americans," he said.
Yet, Abdelhady described his interaction with the surrounding community as minimal.
"I haven't spoken with any Americans, not yet. Very brief encounters, in the supermarket, very normal encounters," he said.
One of these Americans is Gina Gleason, who left El Cajon eight years ago for Kansas, before returning four months ago. Gleason is unemployed and relies on government aid. She seemed frustrated at the blooming refugee presence.
"It seems like every 7-Eleven has foreign people working behind it, I see them all over El Cajon … I know they're Syrian refugees, but they don't look like refugees that I would see. You know what I mean?" Gleason said.
Gleason described a palpable culture clash. To her, the refugees showed disdain to the eccentric, working-class locals — especially the homeless. Occasionally, she carts around her dog in a shopping cart ("he's too fat") which she says invokes disapproving stares from the Syrian newcomers.
Gleason was convinced that the generosity shown to these refugees would be better served if it were directed toward the native community.
"We're definitely able to help our own people as much as we can help anyone else. I think we need to concentrate on our communities and those around us before trying to help people elsewhere," she said.
Mohammad, however, has other plans. He'd been attending the local high school for the past two months, receiving supplementary English lessons alongside his studies. His goals were clear; he would receive an education and become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
"Anyone who wants an education will be helped here. I will become an American citizen one day, but no matter what I do want to go back home," Mohammad said. "I want to become a lawyer or a doctor. Then I will to return to my country and rebuild it. God-willing it will happen."
Reach reporter Raz Nakhlawi here.
Photos by Sean Myers. Reach him here.