"They killed me but I am alive," said Ranachith Yimsut, a 16-year-old Cambodian as he moved throught the cafeteria line at Arlington's Wakefield High School.

"They killed my whole family. They hit me right here," he said, rubbing the spot on the back of his head where he said he was struck by a club. "But I not die. I fall down. I wake up. I live."

Yimsut, who fled his homeland after what he described as a massacre in his village, arrived in Arlington last fall to live with a cousin and begin the transition from Ranachith to "Ronny," the Wakefield High student in blue jeans and denim jacket whom a teacher describes as something of a rascal.

After a year, he seems to be making the adjustment, but school officials say the new Indochinese regugees streaming into the Washington area face more severe problems than those who came in the first wave after the fall of Saigon more than four years ago.

The condition of most of the newcomers is more desperate and their education more meager than those who arrived in 1975, the officials said. Some, including members of the Hmong mountain tribe from Laos, are illiterate in their own language, which is so unlike Vietnamese that the translators hired to help them cannot understand them.

Others have had no regular schooling for years.

For Ung You Hor, Friday was the first day of school since communist forces seized control of his native Cambodia in 1975.

He sat at the rear of a classroom at Wakefield, staring quietly while 34 other students in a basic English class filled out exercise sheets before them.

After a few minutes, teacher David Wittenberg asked if he had finished. Ung smiled and said haltingly that he wanted to take the work home.

Then Wittenberg realized what was wrong: Ung didn't have a pencil. When the teacher gave him one, Ung set quickly to work trying to copy English sentences.

Later, Ung told a visitor that his father had been killed in May and his mother was still in Cambodia. He said he had been living with a sister in Arlington since early September.

Asked why he did not start school then, he replied, "I didn't know. Not have papers. Afraid."

"The stories these children tell are so horrible that you obviously feel sympathy for them," said Caroline Tryon, a teacher at the school. "But my job as a teacher is to teach them English so they can survive here. It's not easy for many of them.

"When we start they're very quiet and withdrawn. But we use lots of pictures and a lot of body language."

Karen Galeano, an English language specialist who works at Wakefield High's center for incoming foreign students, said: "Some of these are very scruffy kids.

"They've been living in the jungle or floating in the South China Sea. Sometimes their skin tone has changed. Their hair has turned red for lack of protein. Some of them look so small, but they're really so old. They look 13, and they're 17. They've eaten so poorly."

The director of the Indochinese assistance program at the U.S. Office of Education, James H. Lockhart, said the children coming in now are "not like the earlier wave of refugees who tended to be upper class or military and already had some ties with the United States.

"Many of these [newcomers] are farmers or fishermen or shop owners. A lot of them have been living in camps or in terrible conditions in their own countries."

Lockhart told a conference on refugees at George Mason University in Fairfax last week that his office has only a skeleton staff but may "swing into action quickly" if Congress adopts new legislation to aid the refugees.

In Arlington, the problems already have arrived with the flood of new refugees this year.

Emma Hainer, director of the foreign student center, cited the case of six Hmong teen-agers from the hills of Laos who do not speak English and cannot write their native tribal language.

"We don't have anyone who can talk to them," Hainer said. "It's hard to know what to do."

Tryon said she has found volunteer tutors to work with the Hmongs individually for about an hour a day, teaching them to write the alphabet and how to count. The rest of the time they sit in English language classes of 30 to 35 students and "can't get much out it," she said.

The all-day classes have been swollen this year by non-English speaking immigrants from Latin American Iran and Afghanistan, as well as Indochina.

Officials said discipline problems are minimal in the beginning English classes.

Estimates of the Southeast Asian refugee population in the Washington area are uncertain ranging from 8,000 to 20,000. In Arlington, which has the highest concentration the number is clearly growing with about 200 new refugee children reported entering the school system this fall.

"We try to teach them all in English" Tryon said. "I use flash cards and we drill and drill and drill.'

She added that students are moved ahead to more advanced levels of English as quickly as they can go and, as they progress, they take more regular high school courses. There is one special course taught partly in Vietnamese that teaches the history of Virginia, the United States and Vietnam.

Discipline problems are minimal in the beginning classes Tryon said.

"But the better their English, the more comfortable they feel, and the more likely they are to behave like the American kids," Hainer added. That's not always so good."