Sobs of joy filled a waiting room at Los Angeles International Airport Wednesday as a crippled orphan boy rejoined his family for the first time in a decade, and became one of the first Cambodians allowed into America under a special program.
Phidel Hun, 12, who was separated from his family as an infant in the Communist overthrow of Cambodia in 1975, stepped timidly from a Northwest Orient plane into a tumult of television cameras and microphones.
Before he could catch his breath, he was swept high into the air by his grinning uncle, Hanyou Gau of Bellflower. His teen-age brothers, Delux and Pich, whom he had not seen since he was a baby, happily rubbed his back.
“This is fantastic!” Gau cried. “What could be better than this?”
It was not until 1984 that the family learned that Phidel was alive. His parents were believed to have been executed by Communist troops, and Phidel had been under the care of an uncle who later disappeared.
But a distant relative, living in a refugee camp in Thailand, spotted the boy’s deformed hand--burned and disfigured when he grabbed a hot iron as an infant--and recognized him as the lost child.
Gau and Phidel have exchanged letters since then, and Gau and Phidel’s grandmother visited him last spring at the refugee camp where he lived.
Gau, assisted by the International Relief Committee in Los Angeles, brought Phidel to the United States under a federal program that allows entry to disabled, sick or mentally ill people who are not officially classified as war refugees.
The director of the International Relief Committee, Lavinia Limon, said it took her organization and Phidel’s family two years to win the special parole.
It was granted in July by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, shortly after a request from Sen. Alan Cranston’s office that Phidel’s application be given immediate consideration in light of his deformity.
Limon said she knows of no other Cambodians who have come to the United States under the little-known humanitarian program.
“We hope Phidel’s story will be the first of many, that it will help others come from the camps under humanitarian parole,” Limon said.
Giggling and grinning at the cameras Wednesday--but still too shy to talk much--Phidel was finally persuaded to explain why he had no luggage. He arrived with nothing but a small satchel containing a new red sweater, tennis shoes and seven school books.
“They gave me a new shirt and jeans before I left Bangkok, so I threw everything else away,” he quietly told his aunts, who laughed uproariously.
And what, his uncle Gau asked, became of the $50 they sent Phidel for his journey here.
He spent it, he explained, in just three days on candy and snacks for himself and four other orphan friends who were released from the camp the same day he was and traveled with him to Bangkok. More laughter from the aunts.
So what does Phidel want to do most now that he is in America, several reporters wanted to know.
“I want to go to school,” he told Gau. And he is “very pleased” that he no longer lives in the camp.
His grandmother, Siem Kim Tan, overcome with tears, held Phidel fast to her and thanked Buddha for delivering him safely to Los Angeles.
“I am so happy, I could not sleep last night,” she said. “I will tell Phidel that this country is very kind, and that it will help him heal his hand, and will give him a home for life.”
None of his uncles, aunts, grandparents or brothers knows exactly how the orphan made his way alone all these years, nor how he ended up at a Thai refugee camp at the age of 9.
However, Limon said that it is known that Phidel spent several years in a Khmer Rouge concentration camp for children. “We don’t like to talk about that,” she said.
For Phidel, all that is over now, and the future holds new hope.
His brothers said they will teach him English, and several members of his large, extended family said they have few worries about Phidel adapting to California.
“We won’t have any trouble teaching him over here, and he will adapt quickly,” said Chen Kong, another uncle.
“We thank God and the American people and everyone who helped bring our little nephew to us, where he belongs.”