After the tanks and bombs of Kuwait City, the weeks of hiding and the frantic flight to the United States, the toy helicopter in a discount store in Maryland seemed like such a small thing. And yet, it, perhaps more than anything, made Nancy, a once well-off Middle Eastern woman, want to cry.

Her 8-year-old son, forced to flee Kuwait without his toys, picked up the plastic helicopter and begged for it.

"I had to tell him no, we do not have the money," said Nancy, 34, who asked that her full name and nationality not be printed for fear of jeopardizing her husband, who remained behind.

"It made me so sad, but I promised him, when I get a job, I will buy him everything he wants."

Nancy is one of 15 refuguees from Kuwait who arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last week and have been staying since Wednesday at Sarah's House, an Anne Arundel County shelter for the homeless at Fort Meade.

They are from different Middle Eastern countries, but their children were born in America and so they were allowed to come to the United States on a flight out of Kuwait last week. For most of them, it was the only option and the only way to escape a life, once luxurious and now untenable.

Because of their internationally incompatible marriages -- Jordanians to Lebanese, Palestinians to Jordanians -- and the American citizenship of their children, they were unable to enter other Middle Eastern countries together. Souheil Ahmad, a 30-year-old Palestinian engineer, could have gone to Lebanon, for instance, but his children, as Americans, were not allowed. His wife, a Jordanian, could have gone to Saudi Arabia, but not with Ahmad, because the Saudis do not recognize his passport, Ahmad said.

The situation was much the same for the others.

"After everyone else from the flight had gone their separate ways, they were just sort of left over with nowhere to go," said Edward Bloom, director of Anne Arundel's Department of Social Services.

They are all professionals, one a teacher, another a civil engineer, a third an interior decorator. But with their bank accounts frozen and their cash exhausted, they came to the United States with nothing more than a suitcase of clothes apiece.

With their 60-day visitors' visas, they also received a $500 loan from the U.S. government. Most of that money has been exhausted. And now, they find themselves in an immigration limbo.

Their visas do not allow them to hold jobs. They are awaiting word from the INS about work permits and visa extensions. Officials from the Immigration and Naturalization Service could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"Imagine, you wake up and not only are there tanks rolling down your street, but your credit card is no good," said Ali, a 35-year-old teacher, who like Nancy asked not to have his name used for fear of jeopardizing family still in Kuwait.

"We had two cars, a beautiful home and now, all that is gone. All we ask now is for the chance to work and rebuild."

Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said yesterday that the state is working with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to make arrangements for refugees who have neither U.S. citizenship nor a prearranged place to stay.

She said department and INS officials will meet tomorrow and "the whole thing is going to be resolved. The INS has assured us that these people will be taken care of until their situation stabilizes and they can return to their county."

Meanwhile, the refugees spend their days in tidy but spartan efficiencies at Sarah's House and try not to dwell on what they left behind.

"When the embassy called us, they said, 'Pack your lives,' " said Ali's wife. "What can you put in one suitcase?"