Resilience & Belonging

When New Americans can find belonging, the path to success follows. Rose, Naw, and Zikra became close friends through the Asian Center’s youth programs several years ago. The trio are from different countries and have different faiths and traditions, but they are now chosen sisters.

“I have belonging with Naw and Zikra. It was hard for me to explain how close I am to them. We tell each other everything!” says Rose, a 19-year-old immigrant from Iraq.

The three met in middle school, but their friendship blossomed in high school when they joined the Asian Center youth programs Life After High School and Untold Migrant Stories. The programs focus on supporting and empowering youth (mostly New Americans) to build community, succeed academically, and learn to tell their personal stories.

Naw, from Myanmar, was actually born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to Lincoln with her family 10 years ago. Her natural shyness sheds when she’s with her friends, revealing a strong and intelligent young woman.

Zikra, the oldest of five kids, came as a refugee from Iraq just five years ago with her family. “To my parents, education means opportunity. They brought us here to get an education and build a better life,” says Zikra.

The focus on education and success is an important theme in each of the girls’ families. “Growing up without education, my parents knew how hard life can be. They always tell me that education is the key!” says Naw.

In 2022, as their senior year of high school drew to a close, the friends collaborated on a UNL Photovoice Project. Naw and Rose traveled to Washington, DC to see what topics other youths were exploring at the True Leaders in Equity Summit. They decided to focus on the mental health of immigrant youth, a reflection of their personal experience and a growing issue.

“We all have to help our families – interpret for our parents, fill out documents, translate for parent/teacher conferences. It can be really stressful like we have to be adults in a lot of situations,” says Rose, who is the middle of five siblings in her family.

Acting as researchers, the three assembled a group of young adult immigrant and refugee participants. They guided conversations about mental health related to dual navigation (navigating one’s own immigration process while simultaneously helping one’s family do the same).

“I remember one of the participants said when he tried to talk about mental health or going to therapy, the parents said there’s no such thing as mental health. It’s all in your mind. If you don’t think about it, it will just go away. If you try to get help, you’re the crazy one,” says Naw.

After the targeted mental health discussions, participants contributed their own stories to a Photovoice project. The array of perspectives and insights represents a compelling picture of the challenges immigrant youth face.

“For me, I realized that just identifying the stress, naming it, and having people to safely share with is really helpful. Even if the situation doesn’t change, just having that relationship makes a difference,” says Rose.

Zikra, Naw, and Rose were able to present their photovoice project as a featured booth at the Asian Center’s AAPI Heritage Celebration at the end of April. Well over 1,000 community members attended. The project will also be featured at the Lux Center for the Arts in the coming weeks.

While this critical work sheds light on a pressing issue for the friends and their peers, it has also deepened their own connection and supported their mental health. The three are all completing their freshman year at Nebraska Wesleyan studying medical sciences.

“Being part of Life After High School and Untold Migrant Stories is how we all became best friends. Asian Center programs have given us opportunities we couldn’t have imagined,” says Rose.

“I felt safe at Asian Center programs. With that and my friends, I was able to step outside my comfort zone. I got all these opportunities because I said yes to their clubs. We all said yes and joined together, and that led us here!” says Naw.

In 2022, Asian Center youth programs spent over 4,800 hours serving, resourcing, and empowering young people like Naw, Zikra, and Rose to find belonging and use their voices. We’re so proud of these young women and all they’ve accomplished so far. We can’t wait to see what the future holds!