LOS ANGELES, Oct. 19 -- The United States had been good to the three men, friends and coffee farmers from rural Vietnam who fled their country after a government crackdown on their Christian hill-dwelling tribe. In North Carolina, they had been given jobs, apartments, a start on a new life.
But after a year, they told their sponsors, they felt a call from God to return -- to their families and to their church. And so they started the long journey home with more prayer than paperwork by retracing their steps back to the airport.
This 47-year-old man, shown in profile to protect his identity, has been stranded at Los Angeles International Airport since Sept. 20, as he tries to find a way to return to his native Vietnam.
(Mel Melcon -- Los Angeles Times)
A month later, that is where the journey for one of them has stalled.
Since Sept. 20, the homesick 47-year-old refugee -- a member of the Montagnard ethnic minority who speaks only an obscure tribal dialect, jurai -- has been stranded at Los Angeles International Airport, having lost, shortly after the group's arrival from Charlotte, the travel documents that would allow him to board any plane departing the United States.
For weeks, he has whiled away the hours amid the bustle of the international terminal, sleeping on benches and surviving on the meals offered by perplexed but sympathetic airport workers. While allowing airport officials to try to assist him through the complex process of getting papers that will allow him to travel home, he has repeatedly declined offers of shelter outside the gates of LAX.
"His thinking is, 'If I leave the airport, then nobody will work on my problem,' " said Nancy Castles, public relations director for the city agency that runs the nation's third busiest airport. "He's very smart."
Airport officials have declined to provide the man's name or allow his face to be photographed because of the danger he may face at home, where the Montagnards, who fought alongside U.S. Special Forces in the Vietnam War, have long faced religious persecution and land grabs from the communist government. The man's dialect has made it difficult for airport authorities to communicate with him; even Vietnamese speakers have trouble.
The case has drawn comparisons to the recent Tom Hanks movie "The Terminal," itself based on the true story of an Iranian refugee who has lived at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport since 1988 in a murky standoff over his residency status. This one, though, is a unique tale of cross-cultural confusion and undaunted determination that has frustrated social service providers and immigrant advocates on two coasts. The three men were among a group of 900 Montagnards who were flown in 2002 from Cambodian refugee camps to North Carolina -- already home to 3,000 to 5,000 Montagnard immigrants, drawn there over the years by a supportive community of retired military and social service groups.
All three found jobs -- the 47-year-old at a retail clothing distribution center -- and shared housing with other Montagnard immigrants -- most of them forced to leave wives and children behind in Vietnam.
But in 2003, the three announced plans to return to Vietnam -- something that resettlement agency officials had never known to happen before. The choice quickly proved controversial. While resettlement officials helped them apply for the immigration paperwork necessary to return, the men became impatient. They quit their jobs, expecting to leave soon. But as their wait for documents dragged on, they fell out with their roommates, who grew tired of carrying more than their share of rent. They drifted around Charlotte, homeless. And they camped out for days at a time at the local airport, trying unsuccessfully to get passage back to Vietnam.
"They only understood that they wanted to go back," said Cira Ponce, director of the refugee resettlement program for Catholic Social Services of the Charlotte Diocese. "They didn't necessarily understand the complexity of how that occurs. They thought they should just be able to get on a plane and get back."
Somehow, they made it to LAX. Airport officials say they do not know what airline brought them from Charlotte. On Sept. 20, they tried to board a China Airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City by way of Taipei -- they had bought tickets through Lufthansa -- but were denied passage because they lacked visas.
After several days, airport workers started to notice these travelers who never seemed to leave -- "They could tell something's wrong here," said Castles -- and brought them to the attention of Travelers Aid, an airport-based social service organization.
Castles said the men were sent first to a city shelter, then to a Vietnamese community assistance group several miles outside Los Angeles, where they stayed for a few days. Then, "boom, they just showed back up," she said.
After another several days, two of the men apparently secured visas that would allow them to enter Cambodia. Castles said airport officials believe the men departed on a China Air flight on Oct. 8, in hopes of reaching their families from the neighboring country.
But the 47-year-old man remained in the airport. At some point -- most likely during his trip to the shelter -- he had lost a package containing all of his money and documents, most importantly the papers proving his refugee status in the United States. Without it, "he basically has no country," Castles said. "Not a single airline will allow him to board."
In an interview conducted with the help of a Vietnamese-speaking airport guide, the man said he was beaten by police and spent time in a Vietnamese jail for preaching Christianity and that his church was burned during a government crackdown. "I want to go back and be a farmer," he said, adding that he would agree not to preach if the government would just let him worship as he pleases. He said it has been four years since he has seen or been able to communicate with his wife or five children.
In desperation, he offered to give himself up as an indigent to be deported to Vietnam -- a move that would have cost him his refugee status in the United States. Even that failed: Because the United States still has no relations with Vietnam, it cannot deport anyone there.
On Monday, Castles learned that the man can apply for a new refugee permit but that it will take at least 90 days to process. To get the documents, though, he will need a mailing address. And so he has reluctantly agreed to move, possibly within a few days, to a temporary home in the Los Angeles shelter where he can receive those crucial papers in the mail.
It may be the only thing that could persuade him to leave LAX. He said he has not decided.