A wan smile plays across his lips as Ngo Van Que retells his escape from the ravaged countyside of Southeast Asia to the heart of inner-city Washington.
With a pregnant wife and two small children, Que 30, fled Vietnam last August in a fishing boat with 100 other refugees. For six days they rode the seas before arriving in Hong Kong.
In December, the family arrived in Washington.
Once here, Que again found himself in storm-tossed seas. This time he has been buffeted about in the upheaval caused by housing problems.
Thirty-five Vietnamese families -- more than 100 people -- live in the Park Regent at 1701 Park Rd. NW, where Que is a part-time janitor. All could be evicted next Friday when the apartments are converted to condominiums.
Previously teachers, military officers and fishermen, the refugees say they now work as unskilled laborers in D.C. hotel and restaurants. Accustomed to having homes of their own, they live six to a room in Park Regent efficiencies.
In one apartment, where family photos and a color poster of Pope John Paul II adorn the stark white walls, some refugees and the Rev. Nguyen Long, of Sacred Heart Church, described resettlement as a process filled with confusion and despair.
Refugees who are physicians have been sent to the backwoods of Louisiana, while fishermen have been directed to inner-city Washington, said the Rev. Long.
Nguyen Van Canh, a former army officer, said the International Rescue Committee sent him to the Park Regent, where he, his wife and three children have lived since January. The efficiency apartment is too small, said Cahn, and he's ashamed to invite his American friends there.
The Vietnamese unwittingly signed condominium consent forms to obtain apartments in the building, Canh said. Now they find if the building turns condo they will have to move out. Canh said he will be among them.
Canh tries to keep things in perspective. "We spend most of our lives in hell in my country," he said. "We try to accommodate to the life here."
Compared to other resettlement difficulties, displacement is a minor problem, he said.
But it is a problem, said another English-speaking man named Hoang, who has lived in D.C. three years. Refugees usually need a year to understand Washington's housing problems, he said. In the meantime, they live isolated and afraid in substandard housing.
Nguyen Manh Cuong and three members of his family have lived in a two-bedroom apartment at the Park Regent nearly five months. Although Project WISH (Washington Innercity Self Help) pressured the landlords in repairing more than 250 housing code violations in the building, the Vietnamese have not been as successful in getting repairs. Language has been one barrier, but there have been others.
"Vietnamese are afraid. People have no American skills. They have very low income. If the landlord kicks them out of the building, it is difficult to find a place to live."
On weekends the single men drink and play cards to ward off loneliness, the Rev. Long said sadly. He said the refugees are confused about tenant rights. They want their own homes, social centers and churches. Many try to move to the Asian community in Arlington.
"I'm suffering I want to help my countrymen," said the Rev. Long. "Americans think we want everything American. There's problem in that. I know this is new country, but we must take a little bit, step by step."