Meymuna Hussein-Cattan, founder of Tiyya and Flavors from Afar, which supports refugees living in Southern California.

Meymuna Hussein-Cattan

Meymuna Hussein-Cattan has been committed to providing opportunities for refugees since her childhood, inspired by her birth in a refugee camp in Somalia to a family fleeing unrest in her native Ethiopia. Today, Hussein leads Tiyya, an Orange County nonprofit that provides paths to opportunities for refugees from around the world. The organization has launched Flavors from Afar, a new initiative in which former refugees enlighten the Southern California community with their culinary delights. Hussein presented at the G3X nonprofit conference at Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College on Aug. 14.

Meymuna Hussein-Cattan leads a major philanthropic organization, and she is the first in her family to earn a graduate degree; she’s the mother of a two-year-old daughter and the wife of a UCLA development professional. Her life today is a far cry from her birth in a refugee camp in Somalia, the daughter of young parents who had fled violence in Ethiopia in the 1970s.

In 1983, Hussein-Cattan’s father moved to San Diego when he was resettled by the International Rescue Committee. Young Meymuna and her mother followed the next year, and the family eventually settled in Orange County.

Years later, during graduate school at Antioch University, Hussein-Cattan completed her thesis on her brainchild, Tiyya, a nonprofit organization that would support refugees starting a new life in Southern California.

“‛Tia’ is a universal word that is used in many languages,” said Hussein-Cattan. “It means aunt in Spanish, giving in Hindi, and we name our daughters Tia. But in Oromo, our family’s language in Ethiopia, it means my love.”

Post-graduation, Hussein-Cattan launched Tiyya with her mother in 2010.

In recent years, with the loss of government funding for her program, the Southern California social entrepreneur has diversified by launching Flavors from Afar, marshalling the culinary abilities of refugees to build awareness of diverse cultures while supporting a new career path for the chefs, who prepare food from their own countries at catered events. Tiyya has also expanded to provide educational and college pathways for local refugee youth.

The Power of a New Life Through Culinary Arts

Less than two years into the Flavors from Afar initiative, Hussein-Cattan has already seen firsthand the impact of her model, which focuses on positive transformations.

“As the result of this social enterprise, refugees are equipped with the skills to turn their love for home cooking into a passion for the culinary arts and entrepreneurship,” said Hussein-Cattan. “In the past year and a half, we went from a concept in the kitchen to a full-on catering business, which has been featured in media outlets such as Sautee magazine and the Los Angeles Times. We’ve been requested for intimate dinners of just 10 people and a huge gathering of 150 international delegates for the International Visitors Council in Los Angeles.”

Flavors from Afar was recently the recipient of a $50,000 grant from the Orange County Community Foundation Social Innovation Fund.

Liza Popal’s life has been transformed by Flavors from Afar. Popal is an Afghan refugee displaced from her country due to her Afghan husband’s employment with the U.S. In 2016, she first met Hussein-Cattan at Tiyya’s offices, requesting diapers for her 10-month-old baby. Fast forward to 2019, and Popol is one of five chefs who participated in the initiative’s first audition and is also now studying accounting and preparing for her second child.

“Liza is more than her story of displacement,” said Hussein-Cattan. “She is a student, she is a mother, she is an entrepreneur. And she makes the best Afghan dumplings. They’re delicious.”

Hussein-Cattan’s motivation to change lives through the power of food came from her mother’s generosity and Ethiopian culture, but she has discovered that culinary hospitality transcends time and place.

“Back when I was a little girl and we didn’t have any resources, when we didn’t know how next month would look, my sisters and I would gather in my mom’s kitchen and start preparing dinner for friends and family. Friends who, like us, were refugees knew how to start over,” said Hussein-Cattan.

“In East African culture, it is actually rude to not offer food to your guests when visitors come over. I thought it was just my culture, but I’ve learned that it is common throughout every household I’ve visited, even though my clients were still learning English. This is how they express their love and gratitude. Even though they aren’t from East Africa – it’s true if they’re from Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Venezuela, Iran, the Republic of Congo.”

Starting this fall, Hussein-Cattan hopes to host ongoing educational dinners highlighting the cultures of countries with many refugees. One of the dinners will feature Venezuelan cuisine curated by Maria Esther, a chef and former asylum seeker.

“We will talk about the politics and displacement and how families are starting over in the U.S.,” said Hussein-Cattan. “We will also celebrate with music and food, and maybe have a dance lesson. We want to incorporate a sense of relief and joy, because there is so much happening now in every continent, with internally displaced people due to war, the environment and gentrification. Migration is rampant right now. We just want to pause and remember and celebrate.”

Despite Losing Government Support, Tiyya Expands Its Youth Outreach

There’s no escaping the fact that Washington’s shifting priorities have been a sea change for Tiyya. Prior to the 2016 elections, the organization provided 15 hours of vocational English classes on site, had full-time case managers and weekly employment workshops, and offered family mentoring for more than 70 Orange County households.

Today, the connections with social service agencies are gone, and casework initiatives are but a memory. Relying on private support, Tiyya will debut its college preparatory program in fall 2019, building its youth initiative from its preexisting soccer and tutoring offerings. Aliso Viejo’s Soka University is one partner in this.

“If admitted, students will receive four years of free college, including housing and tuition, and this also includes studying abroad,” said Hussein-Cattan. “We will take schoolchildren from Anaheim and Irvine on college tours. When you call on us for catering, it will go back to our youth programs and college readiness.”

Three Tips for Your Philanthropic Organization

Hussein-Cattan told attendees at the Mihaylo College G3X Conference, which provides professional development and networking for Southern California philanthropists and social entrepreneurs, that trickle-down community engagement – the tendency to bypass the people most impacted by an issue while using the community’s trauma to acquire funding – has become an unfortunate reality for many organizations.

In an era of negative news, Hussein-Cattan suggests that organizations prioritize positive and uplifting content over images that show desperation and crisis.

“I call it the five-to-one ratio,” she said. “I understand there is an urgency to pull people’s heartstrings, but keep in mind that there is trauma fatigue happening with the news. You want to make sure you give people good news stories, and then maybe one call to action or trauma happening in the community.”

For Hussein-Cattan, thinking of photos that readers would want to frame in their home or put up on their refrigerator is a good standard.

Working in partnership with the communities an organization serves and protecting the integrity of all subjects depicted in any way, such as images or text, are also vital steps, according to Hussein-Cattan.

“In my experience, people will share their stories, but maybe they don’t want their faces shown. Or they want their faces but don’t want their name shared,” she said. “We use photo release waivers and have the subjects check mark their preferences. That’s why sometimes we have photos of the children but not the mom or dad. Or we even show a woman’s headscarf from the back.”

Above all, Hussein-Cattan endeavors to show the world the humanity and achievements of the community she serves, while breaking stereotypes.

“Imagine a refugee who is healthy with a living and loving family and has a full-time job and is full of joy. Imagine what they look like when their needs are met. That is what Tiyya is trying to do. To show what is possible,” Hussein-Cattan said.

For More Information

Want to support Tiyya and its mission? In addition to donations, Hussein-Cattan encourages companies, organizations and schools to invest in catering from Flavors from Afar for authentic home-cooked international meals at events.

Operate a nonprofit or social enterprise and want a consultant, supporter or insights on how to create new initiatives? Check out the free resources (signup required) on the Tiyya website.

For more on Mihaylo College’s Gianneschi Center, which provides continuing education, networking and professional development for those seeking to make a difference in their communities, visit the center online. Or read more of our articles about this nonprofit program.