Coming to aid of former colleague Ex-Hopkins scientist tries to overcome physical setbacks

October 17, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

As a gifted biophysicist at the Johns Hopkins University, Ali Reza's mind once helped unravel mysteries of quantum science. Now, he is struggling to understand how he can save himself from homelessness.

It's been eight years since an intruder broke into Reza's North Baltimore home and beat him so severely that he lapsed into a coma. When he awoke four months later, part of his brain had been removed by surgery.

Yesterday, a small group of his dedicated friends met with him at Hopkins once again, to try to find ways to help him. They hope to assist him in finding a permanent job and help him obtain a green card so he can avoid deportation to his native Bangladesh. They also wanted to hear an update from him about his life.

"More than my academic dreams, I have another ambition now," Reza, 42, read to the group of biophysicists, lab technicians and professors. "If I ever become productively self-reliant, I intend to dedicate my life to helping others who are also victims of abandonment."

Reading from a statement he had prepared, in a voice that was soft but firm, he added: "I know I am far away from having such a dream fulfilled with my deteriorating vision and frail health. But dream is my best and most important companion now."

Reza's writing still shows a high level of intelligence. But he has many accompanying problems that linger from the attack: limited cognitive ability, near blindness in his left eye, severe weakness in the right side of his body, and extreme difficulty in understanding speech.

At times, his mental impairment makes him unable to recognize even his closest friends.

"It is very frustrating for him because in his prior life he was recognized as such a brilliant man," said a longtime friend of Reza's, Mohammad O. Farooq, an economics professor from Iowa who came to Baltimore for yesterday's meeting. Farooq and Reza were students together in the early 1980s in Bangladesh.

Reza went on to become a physics professor at a Bangladesh university but decided to come to Baltimore on a prestigious fellowship at Hopkins. In September 1990, just weeks after he began his course work, Reza interrupted a burglar at his home and was severely beaten; his attacker has never been found.

At the time of the attack, Reza was studying contraception and its implications for preventing disease.

"There were times when I seriously felt that the stranger who shattered my life could have done me and the world a favor if his blow to my head was a little bit harder to push me across the border of life," Reza read aloud at the meeting yesterday. "But I don't feel the same anymore.

"I have no idea how the remainder of my life is going to unfold. It is unlikely that I might someday return to the world of quantum or life physics. Today, I don't need to know; rather, I don't want to know what I can't do, but rather what I can."

Ineligible for residency

Among Reza's most difficult problems are his work status and obtaining residency. He came to the United States on a student visa, but since he is no longer enrolled at the university, he is not eligible to apply for residency.

John Shallman, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Baltimore, said immigration officials have no immediate plans to deport Reza. But without a permanent job, Reza is not eligible to receive a green card, Shallman said.

Richard A. Cone, a Hopkins biophysics professor who knew Reza before the attack, is one of the people trying to help him land a job at the university. But he said it will be difficult since the university has a strict policy not to hire "illegal aliens" -- a category that Reza falls into.

"It's a Catch-22 -- the university can't hire him without the right immigration status, and he can't get the status without a job," Cone said.

Moving on

Reza said that he is trying to prepare himself for some type of computer work. He is taking a course in Unix programming at Baltimore City Community College and said he's hopeful he'll be able to handle the course work.

Friends and benefactors have been his main sources of income. Farooq had helped Reza obtain about $500 a month in contributions from the North American Bangladeshi Islamic Community. But that money source has dried up, Farooq said.

Yesterday, Farooq gave Reza $1,000 from a Florida-based charity group called Benevolence Alliance International.

"We're doing what we can for him. But the months ahead are very uncertain," Farooq said. "I'm not sure how he will get by."

An inspiration

To his friends, Reza's transformation from brilliant biophysicist to nearly destitute has been painful. But many said yesterday he has also been inspirational to them.

"The battle he's fought is one that most people would have never done," said Tim Hoen, a biophysics research technician at Hopkins. He had been doing research with Reza at the time of the attack eight years ago.

"That is an amazing credit to any human being -- the idea that you never give up," Hoen said.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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