Building community

Mohamed Fakhry sitting at his architecture work desk

Mohamed Fakhry wants to create an architecture of empathy — starting right here in Portland.

By Celeste Hamilton Dennis

Growing up as a kid in Dakar, Senegal, Mohamed Fakhry’s early childhood was normal by all means. He spent time with his siblings, mother, and grandmother. He ate grilled corn from the local vendors. He loved playing soccer — on the streets, up on the terrace of his building, anywhere he could. Soccer was everything to him. He wanted be a professional player one day.

Everything changed when he contracted meningitis at age 11. It was New Year’s Eve and he remembers watching fireworks. The following day he was dizzy. He couldn’t hear. His eyes were weak. The next thing he remembered was waking up in a hospital bed after being in a coma for ten days.

“My mom told me, ‘Mohamed, you have to get up and walk,’ ” he says.  “I didn’t have the strength to walk. But I got up.”

This drive to persevere has stayed with Mohamed ever since. This year, he’s finishing his undergraduate degree as an architecture student at Portland State, supported in part by a College of the Arts scholarship. His dream is to become an architect with a focus on public interest design, and bring more people of color into the field to build the spaces they want to see for themselves.

“I want to give back to the community. We are living in a time with racism and tension everywhere in this country, and we need to build bridges,” he says. “I want to focus on working with the community here in Portland. That’s the kind of architecture I want to do.”

After meningitis, though, Fakhry wasn’t thinking about school. He thought the illness would pass, and that he’d play soccer again. His middle school years were spent in and out of hospitals and at home watching T.V. From the screen, he learned how to read lips. After a while, he realized that wasn’t the life he wanted. He needed to go back to school, surrounded by his peers.

He started at a new high school where he didn’t know anybody. He knew he had to do well in school and make friends, and he did. By the end of high school, Fakhry had classmates who were coming to him for help with their homework, and a community of people who wanted to see him succeed. 

“People think you are different because you are deaf. But you’re still ordinary, just like them,” he says. “I wanted to show them that even though I’m deaf, I can do anything they can. I’m the same.”

After high school, Fakhry received scholarships to universities in Morocco, Algeria and France. But his father, a mechanical technician and language interpreter, had been living in Portland for more than a decade. Wanting to spend time with his father, Fakhry moved to Portland in 2013. One of the first things his father did was take him to a doctor at Legacy Emanuel hospital to check his ears. Fakhry looked outside the giant window in the doctor’s office and saw the whole city of Portland, including the U.S. Bancorp Tower, or “Big Pink.” He was in awe.

“You look at those buildings and understand that people are able to do this. So why not you?” he says. “It made me feel like I can do anything.”

“For architects, nothing is impossible.”

At Portland State, his focus is on how to design for communities in need — specifically making hospitals or medical spaces more accessible and accommodating to communities that don’t have access to great medical care, whether people of color or people with disabilities. He hopes to continue on to graduate school.

For now, Portland is his home. He spends his time volunteering every week at Portland Adventist Community Service and sometimes the Oregon Food Bank. At Portland State, he’s a member of the Campus Sustainability team. For Fakhry, the university has given him not only concrete architecture skills, but a supportive community made up of people from every corner of the globe.  

“I’m at the center of the world,” he says. “That’s how I feel when I’m at Portland State.”

He's since gotten a cochlear implant after arriving in the U.S. to help with his hearing although at times he uses closed captioning in class and asks classmates to write notes or meet face-to-face so he can read lips. He's playing soccer. Fakhry gets up again, and again. Whenever he sees the St. John’s bridge, it’s a reminder of where he's been and where he's still going

“All the challenges I’ve faced in life, I look at it like that bridge,” he says. “It seems like it never ends. Sometimes I have to speed up, sometimes I have to slow down. But I know deep down that I’m going to cross it no matter what.”