Vietnamese refugee, denied visa, has been waiting to return home since Sept. 20

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 L.A.

Then the man yearning to see relatives in one of Vietnam's Mantagnard villages was embraced by an unexpected ''family'' -- airport police, airline employees and others who work at the 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 Mantagnard 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 dilemma 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 Mantagnards' close cooperation with the United States in the Vietnam War, disclosure of his identity ''would endanger his life further'' back 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 the trio 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 Mantagnards, 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 plane on Sept. 20, Castles said.

Airport Traveler's 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.

When Airport Police Sgt. Vince Garcia spotted the villager sitting forlorn in a Bradley Terminal waiting area, he summoned a Vietnamese-speaking airport telecommunications department worker. Although translation proved difficult, the man's story started to come to light. By this week his life was starting to get easier.

Airport police officers began collecting money among themselves to pay the man's way to San Francisco in case he needed to go there to obtain the proper visa. They found a place near a police security checkpoint where he could sleep at night and officers could watch over him.

Airport administrators contacted the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to get a duplicate refugee passport for him and arranged for a cot for him to sleep on in a little-used Bradley Terminal room.

Airport visitor information center representative Geraldine Garcia and her co-workers brought food from home for the refugee to eat. Others treated him to meals at terminal restaurants.

Traveler's Aid officials said this stranded-traveler case is like no other in the airport's history.

''It's been the most unusual situation we've dealt with, and we've been at this airport since 1950,'' said Christine Okinaga, Traveler's Aid director of volunteers.

''He's stubborn. He refuses to go to a hotel. Since he's been here almost a month he feels comfortable here.''