San Bernardino

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Nat Berhe, Strong Safety / Giants - The Players' Tribune

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This message flashed across my iPhone screen at 3:05 p.m. on December 2. The sender was my brother, Tam. The street was Waterman Avenue.

As anyone from San Bernardino knows, everything in the “Dino” runs either through or off of Waterman Avenue.

As a child, my mom would take Waterman Avenue to Baseline, to Medical Center Drive to my grandma’s home off Evans Street. I spent most days there while my parents built a non-profit residential care facility for boys from the ground up. We’d play football in the front yard, eat loquats from the loquat tree and watch I Love Lucy and Gilligan’s Island in the den.

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Growing up, nearly every aspect of my life ran through Waterman Avenue.

When my grandmother was placed on hospice care in 2006, the decision was made at Saint Bernadine’s Hospital off Waterman Avenue. My first job shredding paper and calling in lunch orders at my parents’ company was off Waterman Avenue. When I went to my senior prom, my suit was tailored at Tello’s Tailors off Waterman Avenue. And when I got tired of bumming rides from my mom and my best friend Eddie, I went down to the Waterman Avenue DMV and got my license. It took me two tries.

People use the phrase “close to home” when a tragedy happens near them. We try to understand that it’s difficult for people living there, but it always feels far away. You don’t truly grasp it until it affects your own community. You don’t understand how real it feels to see the place you’re from endure such pain. San Bernardino is a place where so many of the most important events of my life happened. From eating more Baker’s and In-n-Out burgers than I’d like to admit, to hanging out at the Inland Center Mall as a teenager. This place made me.

San Bernardino couldn’t be more different from LA. There aren’t any juice bars in San Bernardino, no movie studios and no dive bars. It’s a slower place than Los Angeles. San Bernardino is the ‘burbs. It’s more of a community than a city.

More than anything, it’s a place of love.

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I got this message at 3:37 p.m. Thirty-two minutes had gone by since my brother’s first text.

I was actually on the phone with my mom at the time. I was trying to remain calm and convince her to hurry up and leave her office. But it turned out my brother’s message was incorrect. The shooting was at the Inland Regional Center on Waterman, approximately one mile away from my parents’ office.

In the half-hour since my brother’s first text, facts and rumors were flying everywhere. Waterman Avenue was a worldwide news story. With the current nature of media, it seems that everyone is eager to report some part of a breaking news story, whether it’s confirmed or not. During these types of horrific events, news reports come in rapidly from every angle — tweets, police scanners, text messages, phone calls, everywhere. Some of it is correct, a lot of it isn’t. When an incident is still happening, it’s nearly impossible to know the difference.

But you always want more information. And you always want the newest information. That day, I had been following social media about the shooting and I was tweeting a lot. Because I’m on Injured Reserve, I’m usually home around 3 p.m. with nothing to do, so that day I was glued to my TV as the news unfolded. I was tweeting from my phone and glancing back and forth at the news.

When you’re watching these things unfold from afar, you feel so powerless. I begged my followers to pray for San Bernardino, pleaded with some to donate blood and tried to dig up as much information as I could.

Around 4 p.m. I got an update.

My brother and my parents were able to exit their office safely. They drove down Waterman Avenue, in the opposite direction from the IRC building, where police sirens were going off in the distance. They got on the I-10 freeway and went to their home in Loma Linda, there they watched as detail after excruciating detail came in. I was relieved they were safe.

The next day I got another message.

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Judy is my mother. Ever since we were little kids my brother has had a thing for calling our mother “Judy.” So that alone didn’t capture my attention. It was the tone in his voice that shook me.

Tam is usually cheerful regardless of the situation. In that moment, he was low and somber.

“They killed Isaac yesterday. He was at the IRC building for a holiday party. I can’t believe it.”

Isaac is our cousin. Isaac Amanios. He was born in Eritrea, and survived the country’s brutal war for independence. He found freedom in America. He found a home in San Bernardino. He came to America in 2000, and worked as a health inspector for the county, ensuring the safety of others. Now … he was gone.

I was in complete shock. I was sick. I didn’t leave my apartment that day or much of the next. I felt paralyzed with grief.

People like Isaac live and die on their own terms. He was a great man. He always stressed the importance of an education, he was well-versed in international politics and finance, and he never entered a room without a smile. He deserved so much better than what happened that day.

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Like most Eritrean parents, Isaac’s primary focus in life was the success of his children. He made sure they all went to great universities. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with him right after I graduated from San Diego State. After congratulating me, he immediately asked, “What’s next?” That’s the type of person he was. He was someone who constantly looked towards the future. He was always focused on how he could better himself and those around him.

The person I am today can largely be credited to my upbringing in San Bernardino, and the lessons I’ve learned on Waterman Avenue. Now my city is all over the news, and it’s spoken of only as a piece of a bigger narrative. Right now, to a lot of people, San Bernardino represents a news story, not a hometown. To most, it’s just a trending topic. But we’re so much more than that. Isaac is so much more than that. My cousin was not just a statistic. He was not a pawn in a political debate. He was a loving person. He was a family man. He was a human being.

He will be remembered on his own terms.

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A GoFundMe has been created on Isaac’s behalf to cover the expenses of his three children currently attending college. You can donate here.