PERRYSBURG (WTOL) - A new year that began with such promise for a Perrysburg restaurant owner has quickly turned into a nightmare.
Tong Yi, known to his friends as Don Yi, purchased the Tea Tree Asian Bistro in Levis Commons on Jan. 1, He had previously been a manager of the restaurant for three years.
On Sunday, he flew to South Korea to handle his father’s affairs after his recent death. When he returned to the airport on Wednesday, he was not allowed to board the plane.
“They had put a travel ban on me, and I didn’t know why. No one knew why. But I found out it was the Seoul police,” he told WTOL.
Yi came to the United States when he was 9 years old. He served eight years in the United States Army, which included two tours in Afghanistan. In South Korea, all men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve two years in the military. U.S. citizens are usually granted waivers, but the South Korean government says Yi, now 40, did not inform them when he turned 18 of his decision to remain in the U.S.
As a result, a warrant was issued for his arrest years ago, even though he was stationed in South Korea during various points of his time in the U.S. military.
“I went to the police station on Thursday, and they told me I hadn’t reported to the Korean military when I was 18. I was arrested then and there,” he said.
He was released after six hours. But without a car, he has been forced to wander the streets of Seoul on foot while trying to find someone to help.
“I’ve probably walked 10 miles,” he said Friday morning. “Physically, I’m exhausted. Emotionally, I’m exhausted. I was hoping the U.S. embassy could help me. They just turned me away. That was heartbreaking, because I love this country.”
His mother, Sung Kim, was visibly upset while talking about the ordeal Friday morning.
“My son is my life. He is very good to me, very good to everyone. He is a good guy,” she said. “I’m sad. I’m really sad.”
Yi’s sister, Kim, has a full-time job, but she has been forced to take leave to help the restaurant stay afloat in her brother’s absence.
“My brother was managing the restaurant for the last three years. He is the staple and face of the restaurant, so it is stressful,” she said. “I’ve taken leave from my company I work for. After next week, I don’t know what I will do.”
The outpouring of community support has been overwhelming. Yi said he has been heartened by comments from friends and family since he posted a plea for help on Facebook. His sister said her phone was flooded with comments from well-wishers.
“We thank the community for the support that we’ve gotten. It’s unbelievable,” she said. “We just don’t know where to go.”
Yi said he is running out of money and isn’t sure how he will be able to support himself if he is forced to remain in South Korea for another month.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office has been in touch with the family and is looking to see if there is anything the senator can do to help. Both Sen. Rob Portman and U.S. Rep. Bob Latta’s offices are also trying to help.
Latta posted a message on his Facebook page Friday afternoon regarding the matter.
“My office was made aware of an issue early this morning regarding a constituent from Perrysburg who is overseas and is unable to return. We have reached out to the appropriate governmental agencies to see what can be done to find a resolution,” it read in part.
Yi has since posted on Facebook thanking everyone who has reached out to help him and his family during this difficult time.
“Even though my body is stuck in Korea, my heart is with every single one of you,” he said in the post.