A haven for Asian women to find support


Tom Jorgensen/University of iowa

FILE – The University of Iowa campus looking west from Old Capitol and the Pentacrest.

Tom Ackerman, [email protected]

South of the train tracks and in the backroom of a ballet studio is a place for Asian women seeking support.

A handful of dancers practice and music begins to muffle as Keeli Bao, a junior at the University of Iowa, snakes her way into a quaint, hidden-away three-room grouping. With the hominess of a small apartment, two handmade posters hang neatly, one reading “Monsoon United Women of Asia,” both colored and proudly displayed. A teapot rests on a small table beside the door.

Bao helps run a group focused on Asian students at the UI called Yoni Chats, designed to give international students comfort and a place to discuss culture, body image, and whatever faces them on a daily basis.

“The most important thing about this is the sisterhood,” Bao explains. “We create a really safe place where people can talk about everything.”

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Two other students facilitate the group with Bao. The team focuses on its diversity, hosting a regular meeting for both Mandarin and English speakers, though the groups are intentionally kept small.

“When the meeting starts, it seems like the leaders are leading the group, but it’s actually the members. We kind of just give them ideas,” Bao said. “We all know each other very well.”

The group last met Tuesday, and it plans to meet again Feb. 16.

Mira Yusef, the director of Monsoon: United Asian Women of Iowa, a nonprofit organization in Des Moines, said there’s an issue of silence when it comes to sexual violence — especially in the Asian community.

“There’s a discomfort in talking about sex,” she said.

Discussing this with “cultural insiders” makes it easier, Yusef said, and referred to the various ethnicities that make up the staff at both locations, including those of Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Indonesian descent.

“There’s no need to explain [certain norms] because we already know,” she said. “Solutions are really community-based.”

Yoni Chat began in the Iowa City area in 2012 as the Monsoon group got its feet on the ground. Initially a part of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the program began in 2003 and eventually become a nonprofit organization and influencer in the state for international groups.

Yusef said large pockets of Asian and Pacific Island populations are in Des Moines and Iowa City, making the cities ideal places to have an effect. While waiting for a space of their own, the group shared a home with the UI Women’s Resource and Action Center.

“I think there’s been a sense that there’s been a need for this opportunity,” WRAC Director Linda Kroon said. “The population of students that have come to us, especially from Eastern Asia, are looking for these kinds of opportunities when they get here, so it’s a response to those needs.”

Bao said she learned about the group while searching for volunteer opportunities in the area. Little did she know, the supervisor at the time would take her around the community to local shelters, hospitals, and the courthouse to translate or help people and engage the community.

“Every Friday was like an adventure to me because it was new,” she said.

Since then, Bao said she takes pride in calling the nook behind the small dance studio, and the group of Asian women, home.

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