The Salvadoran refugees in the Washington area are not alone in their troubles. Thousands of the newer arrivals from Southeast Asia fled war and strife in their homelands, desperately unprepared for their new environment. According to social workers and others, they, too, suffer from the aftereffects.

The fundamental difference between the Salvadorans and the Southeast Asian refugees is that while most of the Salvadorans are in the country illegally, and thus ineligible for jobs and federal assistance, the majority of the Southeast Asians are here legally and are eligible.

Federal government statistics place the number of Southeast Asians in the Washington area at about 25,000. Community leaders say there may be as many as 45,000. Virginia alone ranks ninth in the United States in the number of Southeast Asian refugees, with most living in Northern Virginia.

They came fleeing communist regimes in two waves at the end of the American presence in Indochina in the mid-1970s. The first group of arrivals tended to be middle class and educated, concentrated here in part because many worked for the United States in Vietnam and were sponsored by local military or government personnel.

Later, a second group flowed into the United States: the "boat people" from Vietnam, Cambodians fleeing the murderous Khmer Rouge, Laotians escaping their communist government. Social service experts say it is these people -- many of them farmers and fishermen illiterate in their own languages -- who generally have had greater difficulty adjusting to life in America.

Many of the first group have moved as far out as Manassas in search of lower-priced homes. Others are prosperous enough to be moving from starter homes to houses in the $300,000 price range.

Thousands of the more recent arrivals cluster in apartment buildings in Seven Corners and Baileys Crossroads, off Columbia Pike in Arlington, in Hyattsville and Langley Park in Prince George's County and in parts of Silver Spring. Often the apartments are crowded, the living conditions poor.

In an Arlington apartment building an extended family of nine Laotians lives in a one-bedroom unit. There is little furniture: an old sofa, a mattress covered with a spread on the floor of the living room, a large television on a stand.

Like so many of the Salvadorans, many Southeast Asians suffer from the trauma of losing homes and family members, the harrowing escapes from their native countries, the years spent in primitive refugee camps, said Dennis J. Hunt, director of Connections, a Falls Church refugee social service organization sponsored by Catholic Charities.

"We're talking about people who have been through horrors, blood, death, rape. We just expect them to get off the plane and forget it all," he said.

According to a recent study by the Refugee Policy Group, unemployment among Southeast Asian refugees arriving in the second wave (1983-84) is between 35 and 40 percent, compared with an unemployment rate as low as 7 percent for the earlier Indochinese immigrants.

The everyday struggles faced by many refugees have taken their toll. Depression is common, and alcoholism, domestic violence, and crime by youths are becoming problems, said Hunt.

In the past year three Cambodian women in Northern Virginia have committed suicide. Suicide is no higher among refugees than among the general population but has a particular poignancy. They endured so much to get here "only to find themselves in a hopeless situation," Hunt said.

"For every unbelievable success story there are an equal number of tragedies," he said. Little help is available. Almost all the federal aid for refugees is earmarked for job training, leaving few funds for mental health services, he said.

The status of legality enjoyed by the refugees nevertheless makes a huge difference.

Trung-Quang Nyugen, 34, an Arlington resident, is one of the lucky ones. Fleeing communism in Vietnam, he was able to establish his status before arriving in the United States.

When he arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last November, a federal refugee coordinator welcomed him and immediately gave him $250 in pocket money. Then the coordinator arranged for his English language classes, immunization shots and a visit to the psychiatrist to check for any postwar trauma problems or other mental health troubles.

After staying with some relatives in Reading, Pa., Nyugen moved to Arlington in May, "because a friend told me there were lots of jobs there." He now receives $180 a month in federal checks, food stamps, and job training classes at the Arlington Resource Center.

His supervisor, Patricia Horner, said he is likely to get a job as a printing press operator and not need the 31 months of welfare payments to which many refugees are entitled.

By contrast, an undocumented immigrant sneaks across the border; makes his way here furtively; receives no federal aid or greetings from social workers and, under the new immigration law, may not legally be employed in the United States.

Even among the legal refugees, even among the relatively prosperous, there remains great pain.

Someth May and his three sisters, Cambodian refugees, own a grocery store in Arlington and a home in Falls Church. Their father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. They believe their mother is in Vietnam.

For May in particular, the path to success was unusual. He survived the Khmer Rouge labor camps and wrote a book about his experience. His royalties, combined with his sisters' savings from housekeeping and fast food jobs, gave them enough capital to open a store.

But at an age when others are planning for the future, May, 31, finds himself unable to look ahead. In Cambodia he would now be thinking about marrying, settling down to raise a family, becoming wealthy, he said in an interview in the back of the family grocery store.

Here, "I'm not so sure I'm going to stay or just go," he said. "When you stay in a different place, a different civilization, it's very difficult to think about the future . . . . If my country was in peace, I would go home."