One Door Closes, Another One Opens

After graduating from college in 1978, Rafat Hamouda left Egypt for America. “Such wonderful people! The movies, the women, all the nice cars, the American food… I was so fascinated with this country growing up. America was to be my home.” Rafat moved into an apartment in Staten Island, found a union job as a janitor in a nearby nursing home, and bought himself a Lincoln Town Car.

But below the veneer of success was a lonely man living a turbulent life. “I was isolated and always convinced everybody was against me. I asked my director to let me work in the nighttime, to keep from having to tell anybody what was going on in my life.” Rafat’s shaky hold on normalcy deteriorated markedly when, on a rainy night in late 1986, an oncoming car crashed and flipped on top of his vehicle. The accident was so severe that Rafat spent the next two months in the hospital.

After returning home, Rafat found himself increasingly unable to relate to other people or to control his erratic behavior. He did not seek psychiatric help. “I would see these things, these delusions, I knew something was wrong. I was scared but I was also embarrassed.” Instead, Rafat turned to drugs. “I tried cocaine and I started feeling good, I really did. But then I went from cocaine to crack. And that was a problem. With the crack, I would feel things crawling in my legs, see a snake with two heads in my clothes. I felt terrible. But I was addicted.” He was fired from his nursing job for not showing up after his accident. When he had used up all his savings, Rafat sold his furniture to his landlord in lieu of rent.

After a brief period of homelessness, Rafat was offered a room to rent by a friend in Brooklyn. Somehow, Rafat managed to hold occasional part-time jobs at clothing stores despite his drug habit and persistent mental illness. “At that time, I was really really out of my head. When I was with my friend I would see an alligator with two heads come from the window. One time I see camel with three humps come from the window and jump over me.” When his friend was evicted, Rafat moved in with a sympathetic elderly man who he had met through his job. He stayed with him for five years before being forced to leave.

Rafat had nowhere to go.

“I slept in Stuyvesant Park on a bench for about six months. Sometimes cops would kick me out so I would take a walk. But I was scared to go to a shelter. Scared of people.” Rafat tried suicide. “I slit my wrists, but people saw the blood pouring out and they took me to Beth-Israel. Another time I heard voices telling me to steal aspirin. I took about a hundred pills, but I didn’t die, instead I started vomiting in the street.” To feed himself and support his habit, Rafat shoplifted daily from Manhattan markets and drug stores. During a six-month period in 1995, he was caught and arrested three times. For the second arrest, he did time at Rikers Island. With the third arrest, while being held by CVS security guards for a shoplifted ten-pack of Snickers, Rafat used a knife to slit his wrists. This time a judge sentenced him to sixty days at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

The hospital was a welcome reprieve. “They gave me psychiatric medication, evaluations, physical check-up. They told me I had obsessive compulsive disorder because I would wash my hands over and over until they were bleeding.” More importantly, after the sixty days, they released Rafat to a transitional program for the mentally-ill called Green House located within the Bellevue building. Rafat spent seven months there receiving psychiatric care, counseling, and therapy. And he started a substance abuse day treatment program.

After successfully completing Green House’s transitional programs, Rafat was transferred to Los Vecinos, a supported residence for the mentally ill run by the Bowery Residents Committee. After learning how to better control his mental illness, staff moved him from a group residence into his own apartment in an adjacent unit of Los Vecinos. “It was tough at first. I locked myself away from people, but the staff understood my situation and helped me. They always provided conversations and encouragement and the compliments. When I stopped taking my medications one time, the director, Miss Margot, noticed right away and called in the nurse to talk to me.”

Though Rafat still feels lonely from time to time, these days he chats with the other tenants and is quick to describe his next-door neighbor as a good friend.

Last year, Rafat also managed to reconnect with his mother and sister in Egypt for the first time in over two decades. He now writes and phones them regularly. Rafat attends the local mosque and speaks proudly of his continued participation in Narcotics Anonymous. He thinks he may be ready to start working.

Though he is proud of his achievements, Rafat is very worried about his future. This past spring, his application for a Green Card was denied because of the three misdemeanor convictions gained while homeless. “I’m scared. I love the United States and I don’t want to have to leave. But I have learned that when one door closes, another one opens.”