Naredeen Mikhaiel didn’t have much of a choice when she first went to college to study international business and economics.

She grew up in Egypt where a person’s college major and career path are customarily dictated by their performance in certain high school subjects. Though she found economics unexpectedly interesting, she just couldn’t fathom a future in the field.

When she and her family immigrated to Richmond in 2011, Mikhaiel had a chance to start fresh. She enrolled at a community college and set her sights on transferring to VCUarts to study interior design.

“When I was at community college, everyone said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to get into VCUarts because it’s pretty competitive. You should think about plan B,’” she says. “I said, ‘There is no plan B. It has to be plan A.’”

Proximity to her family and their new home was one reason for her commitment to VCUarts. Being an immigrant, she says, strengthens attachment among family members. Mikhaiel’s family members relied on one another to navigate a new country, customs and language.

Her experience as an asylee eventually inspired her interior design senior thesis project, designing a housing facility for refugees. When refugees land in the U.S., she says, they typically face a few challenges: finding permanent housing that accommodates an entire family, integrating into an unfamiliar neighborhood, and accessing public transportation.

Mikhaiel had these challenges in mind when she developed a design concept for a multi-family building that would house refugees from different countries.

“I think people look at interior design as just being decorative,” she says. “I look at interior design as something that solves problems.”

She pictured the building near VCU’s campus, with easy access to city bus lines and the Main Street Train Station. People would live in private spaces that could accommodate larger families. But the building’s layout would also encourage interactions among the different immigrant groups. Her design included a large kitchen that could draw people to share culturally significant foods over conversation, and a library that would help immigrants begin an education that could lead to better jobs.

“My concept is about roots,” she says. “When you move a tree, you need to be very delicate with its roots. You need to find the right soil, the right temperature, the right everything so that the tree can grow again.”

Mikhaiel had the chance to present her thesis at the Interior Design Educators Council in Boston during spring break. She was nervous about the 25-minute talk, particularly since she would be speaking in her second language. To prepare, she signed up for a public speaking class with Robert Ventura, assistant professor of interior design.

“He kept talking about how practice makes a difference,” she says. “I felt like he was talking just to me.”

“It gave me a lot of confidence that if I practice, I can do it. If I believe in my topic, I can do it.”

In the end, Mikhaiel’s presentation turned into a deeper conversation with her audience about the role of housing and interior design in meeting the needs of refugees. She was able to draw on her own life experience to answer questions about the challenges immigrants and refugees face when they arrive in a new country.

“I did not expect people to be that passionate about the topic,” she says. “It felt like people were actually understanding that this is a problem, and that it’s about time for us to act on it.”


April 25, 2018