Refugee is a terminal case in Los Angeles

Police, airline workers help Vietnamese man stranded since Sept. 20

October 17, 2004|By Bob Pool | Bob Pool,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - He speaks only an obscure tribal dialect found in a corner of Vietnam's Pleiku district.

So for nearly a month, a homesick Vietnamese refugee stranded at Los Angeles International Airport slept on airport benches and spent his days silently dreaming of getting out of Los Angeles.

Then the man yearning to see relatives in one of Vietnam's Montagnard villages was embraced by an unexpected "family" - airport police, airline employees and others who work at Tom Bradley International Terminal and offered him food and shelter.

The 47-year-old villager has been stuck at the airport since Sept. 20 when he and two other refugees had arrived from Charlotte, N.C., to start the first leg of an overseas trip they hoped would land them in Ho Chi Minh City.

Visa problems prevented them from boarding their flight, although the villager's two friends eventually were able to catch a plane that would take them to Cambodia by way of Taipei, Taiwan.

But the Montagnard was stranded after he lost his refugee passport and North Carolina identification card - both of which were required of anyone boarding an international flight.

The refugee's problem is eerily similar to that depicted in the recent film The Terminal, where a visitor to the United States played by Tom Hanks is stranded because of a political coup in his native country.

"But this one's a true story," said Lacy Smith, superintendent of terminal operations at Los Angeles International Airport. "This isn't a movie."

On Friday, Smith and other Bradley Terminal employees and airport officials were continuing to pitch in to feed and house the stranded villager and to try to replace his missing travel documents.

Airport administrators have withheld the man's name and refused to allow his face to be photographed at the urging of U.S. immigration officials and refugee resettlement experts.

Because of Montagnards' close cooperation with the United States in the Vietnam War, disclosure of his identity "would endanger his life further" in Vietnam, said Nancy Castles, public relations director for Los Angeles World Airports.

"He's been advised by many, many people that he is putting his life in jeopardy by returning to Vietnam," said Castles. "He's been told it's dangerous. But he's obsessed about getting home."

Castles, who personally has driven the man to an airport maintenance facility so he can bathe in a shower used by airport employees, said he is part of a group of 900 Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in North Carolina in 2002.

He and his two companions worked as laborers through a Charlotte-based resettlement organization that Castles said has asked not to be named. But they became homesick for Vietnam and saved up to buy Charlotte-to-Los Angeles and Los Angeles-to-Taipei-to-Ho Chi Minh City airline tickets.

Because they are Montagnards, the Vietnamese consulate in Washington, D.C., refused to issue them visas to return home. Because they lacked the proper visa, China Airlines would not allow them aboard its Taiwan-bound in plane Sept. 20, Castles said.

Airport Travelers Aid workers noticed the three stranded Vietnamese several days later and first arranged a place for them to stay at a downtown Los Angeles mission and then in the Vietnamese community in Orange County. But both times, the trio quickly returned to the airport.

Along the way, however, the 47-year-old lost his refugee passport and identification card. After his companions were able to exchange their Vietnam plane tickets for ones to nearby Cambodia and were allowed to take off, he was left behind.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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