Opening hearts, opening doors

Opening hearts, opening doors

Lindsey Giardino /
Joanna Lwin

Joana Lwin’s journey has been anything but easy.

Today, through her role as director of Refugee and Immigrant Youth Organization (RIYO) in Waterloo, Iowa, she hopes to take her experiences and pay it forward.

Lwin, ‘22, was born and raised in a refugee camp in Thailand, where her family fled during the ongoing Myanmar Civil War.

When she was 10 years old, Lwin’s family resettled to the United States, and she enrolled in the Waterloo Community School District as a fifth grader.

“It was hard not speaking the language and being in a school and culture I was unfamiliar with,” Lwin said. “During that time, as the oldest in my family, I also played a big role in supporting my family and other community members with all sorts of things, like reading mail, responding to bills, interpreting (even with limited English) and helping with appointments.”

Because the Karenni language Lwin speaks is rare compared to the other languages spoken in Burma, it’s hard to come by interpreters who know it.

“This shaped my perspective on barriers and expectations for young newcomers and their families,” she said. “I have always been involved with youth programming, volunteering to help teach English and supporting families to access resources. This inspired me to want to learn more about how to be of support and led me to study at UNI and co-found the refugee and immigrant-led nonprofit, RIYO.”

At UNI, Lwin chose to pursue a degree in social work because of the impact her caseworker had on her when she arrived in the United States.

“I grew up seeing her as my role model and wanted to help families the way she helped me and my family,” Lwin said. “She tried to make us feel welcome and went above and beyond to make time for us. We went to the beach, celebrated Halloween and even went on a picnic with her. I’ve always wanted to help people the way she helped us.”

Likewise, Lwin felt valued and inspired by her professors in UNI’s Department of Social Work. In addition, her time at the university helped her learn more about the systems that contribute to the barriers refugee and immigrant families face.

I have a better understanding and more compassion now. I also believe earning my degree helps me open doors for other high school or middle school students who might not believe they can succeed in college. Now they can see someone who has overcome similar challenges as them.

Joanna LwinAfter graduation in 2022, Lwin collaborated with other community members to create RIYO.

“After more than six years of working with refugee youth and coming to the United States as a refugee myself, I saw a lot of barriers to success for the youth from refugee and immigrant communities in Waterloo, and we wanted to create more opportunities for them to succeed in high school and after college,” Lwin said.

RIYO is dedicated to providing opportunities for education, self-exploration and community development while removing hurdles and nurturing leadership skills among refugee and immigrant youth and their families.

A majority of RIYO’s founding board of directors, and all its staff and AmeriCorps members, are current students at or alums of UNI. The organization also partners with numerous departments at UNI, including the Department of Languages and Literature.

One of the highlights from Lwin’s time at RIYO thus far was the final day of its Youth Navigator Program last year, where 10 refugee and immigrant youth completed leadership training and received their certificates of achievement.

“It was so powerful to see how much they grew in their confidence and built such strong relationships with each other by the end of the program,” Lwin said. “That confidence is critical to their success, too. We have a lot of students who don’t feel confident to meet people or even ask questions. This affects their ability to learn, their ability to take risks and try new things, their ability to ask questions and to dream big.”

Lwin explained that for students in the program, English is their second, third or fourth language, and they often don’t have support at home with academics, career advice or English language learning, because their parents are also adjusting to learning the new language and culture.

“Some students are even the main support system for their parents,” Lwin said. “So, our programs are really critical for supporting growth and opportunities to learn in these areas.”

As a former refugee herself, Lwin hopes her experience can make students feel more understood or hopeful.

“I hope seeing me in my role helps them see themselves doing similar things, like graduating high school and college, and serving as a leader to help others,” she said. “Representation can be so important. I think when English language learning students learn that the RIYO team has a similar background as them, they feel a sense of belonging and understanding that they might not feel with leaders who don’t have a refugee or immigrant background.”

For Lwin, though she’s had to face many barriers herself, she’s proof that a little help can go a long way toward future success.