The tattered book stood lopsidedly on the bookcase in the Manassas home. But for Thonsay Virath and his family, "Man's Unfinished Journey," was more symbol than a book to read and study.

A year ago this week, the one-time captain in the American-supported Laotian army, his wife and 11 children, shouldering little more than their health, arrived in Washington to begin once again the task of building a new life in a new culture.

It was the family's fourth move in a six-year journey to freedom. First, a hasty departure in 1974 from an army compound in Laos, as communist forces threatened a takeover. Then, a four-year stay in western Laos, where few knew of Virath's army ties. Next the corrugated roofs of the Ubon, a Thailand refugee camp. Now, here, without money, without connections, with only a smattering of English.

"It was sad," Virath said in groping English. "When we first came I didn't know how we were going to live, how I was going to work.

"I had to think in here," he says, pointing to his heart, "that I am not captain anymore. I had to think about who I was now."

Today Virath is a stolid man, who earns $4 an hour recapping tires at a Manassas garage and who deflects most questions about his war experiences. "I don't want to talk about the bad." Instead, he says, it is time to look forward.

"We are here now. We want to learn to live in the United States."

Virath's story is not unusual. With variations, it has been told by nearly 15,000 refugees in the metropolitan area. But is just now beginning to be told in communities like Manassas and areas farther from the close-in suburbs, Alexandria City and Arlington and Fairfax counties.

In the last year, the Indochinese population in Prince William County has grown to more than 300. Most of the early arrivals in this area settled in the closer suburbs, but sponsoring agencies have been focusing on the outer suburbs recently because of the greater availability of larger and cheaper housing.

The decision to begin moving refugees to outer suburbs has posed problems both for the refugees and the communities that serve their needs. Public transportation is minimal. Social service agencies have had little experience with foreign residents. A paucity of translators sometimes makes the language barrier seem insurmountable.

And, unlike many of the earlier refugees, a large portion of the new immigrants have never seen a dishwasher, flipped on an electric light or bartered with money. Many are illiterate not only in English, but in their own language.

Four months ago, a group of Prince William and Manassas residents formed Caring, a privately supported organization in Manassas created to serve as a central processing center for the refugees.

"There are times when the task of assimilation seems overwhelming," says Sylvia Haydash, coordinator of Caring. All new arrivals are immediately put in touch with Haydash, who sets up doctor appointments, collects clothing and furniture for the refugees, helps with budgeting, translates and acts as general guide and troubleshooter.

Most of these people lived in one room huts with the ground for a floor," Haydash says, "then they come here and are expected to live in modern houses with modern equipment . . . it's all they can do to survive."

Haydash, who is affectionately dubbed Pii -- Laotian for older sister -- by the people she helps, reels off dozens of problems the new residents face.

She tells of the man who was told to bring his lunch to work and instead arrived with a box of cake mix, assuming that the picture of the completed cake on the front of the box represented the contents. She mentions the family who was given a tube of shampoo, and used it to wash their faces, teeth and clothes; of the numerous families who built fires on top of electric stoves. Of the man who had a $250 phone bill one month because he thought he could call anywhere for one price. Of the woman who threw a week's salary in cash in the garbage thinking it was only worthless paper.

The list is endless, she says. But the biggest barrier to a smooth transition, she says, is loneliness.

"They want to be a part of the community. But language problems cut most of them off," Haydash says. Language classes have proven difficult for many refugees, she says, because of illiteracy in their own language.

Other observers say the new customs and ways of living sometimes leave refugees feeling less civilized than their American neighbors.

"They keep hearing that their customs aren't right and that they must learn how to do thing in another way. They begin to feel stupid, barbaric and primitive," says Pat Hamilton, of the Buddhist Social Services, one of about seven agencies in the area still relocating refugees.

Hamilton says about 90 percent of the refugees experience some type of cyclical depression -- bouyed the first three months by activity, slumping into a depression the next six months after realizing that there is so much to learn, then bounding back.

"These are resilient people. They have gone through so much more that we cannot even imagine. They know how to survive."

Virath and his family are evidence of Hamilton's claims.

On a tour of his home, room after room displayed the signs of American culture. A Currier and Ives print. Tennis shoes flung behind a child's bedroom door. A portrait of Abe Lincoln pasted above a bed. Peter Frampton next to a mirror.

"I want peace for Laos, and for three years I thought about going back, but now I have no plans. Instead, each year now I will look back and think about the new things we have learned . . . it is time to think about small things.

"It is time to look forward."