Tith Plok, a Cambodian refugee who has been living in Arlington, has ended up in a Salvadoran jail after setting out in September to return to his homeland the way he left it -- by walking.
"He doesn't know how far Cambodia is," said Mary Bliss, a nurse who works with Arlington's Indochinese refugees and this week found Plok through an international refugee organization. "He figures the further south you go, the warmer it will be and the closer he'll get to Cambodia."
Plok, 27, worked in a Manassas brick factory before moving to Arlington with his family two years ago. He spoke little English and owned a car, his family said. He left Arlington with no money and no identification.
A child of rice farmers in the mountainous northeastern part of Cambodia, he and his family fled the Pol Pot regime in 1977, hiking hundreds of miles to Thai border refugee camps. "The first thing that came to his mind is to walk back. He does not have any idea that we actually crossed an ocean to get to the U.S.," said Yonnara Keng, a Cambodian social worker in Arlington who knows Plok.
Plok's family said they believe that he may be mentally retarded, although such a condition has never been diagnosed or treated. Regardless, it took him only four months to maneuver through at least 3,500 miles on his determined trek in the effort to go home.
Refugee organizations, law enforcement agencies and Plok's relatives have no idea how he made the journey. He has not fully explained his story to the representative from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, who interviewed him in a San Salvador police station this week.
There are clues, however, that suggest he evaded police and foreign authorities along the way.
Three weeks after leaving Arlington, police there received a call from Arkansas police who had found him in Little Rock. "They said he had no soles on the bottom of his shoes and that he was saying he wanted to walk to Cambodia," said Bliss. The Little Rock police gave him $10 and put him on a bus to Washington. The family said they received a ticket citing Plok for walking on a freeway.
Six months later, in May, Plok's father received a letter from the San Salvador office of the U.N. refugee commission informing them that a man claiming to know him was being held in jail.
Bliss then began a telephone search for Plok that went from El Salvador to Guatemala, then Mexico. However, Bliss said, he and his paperwork had parted ways during a transfer from one Salvadoran facility to another, and he actually was still in that county.
Patricia Fagen of the Washington office of the refugee commission said yesterday that the representative who interviewed Plok reported that he was in "okay physical condition."
Plok does not want to come back to Arlington, she said. He says he wants to continue his journey to Cambodia, where he mistakenly believes he will find his family, said Fagen.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador said yesterday that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had authorized the embassy to provide Plok with documentation to allow his reentry to the country as a permanent resident.
Bliss said the problem is raising the money to send someone Plok knows to San Salvador to persuade him that his family is in Arlington and then escort him home. "If we don't do it really soon, we're afraid he'll be lost again," said Bliss.
Social worker Keng said he believes that part of Plok's problems "I miss him."
-- Dao Plok, father of Tith Plok
stem from war-related trauma he experienced in Cambodia.
Like many Cambodians who have resettled in a culture that is alien to their rural ways, Plok felt isolated and unable to adjust, said Keng.
"Maybe something in his mind makes him feel he does not belong here," said Keng. Remembering "his past will help him to feel more welcome. Over here he only stayed in a small box, an apartment, and had no one to talk to."
Plok's father, Dao Plok, said through a translator: "I miss him, but I do not know what to do. I don't know how to bring him back."