Home is a place of refuge. It’s where we go home at night after a long day. A familiar place that gives us some semblance of normality in your life. Where we can find identity and belonging. Many people are fortunate enough to be able to choose where they call home; not everyone is as fortunate.
Meymuna Hussein-Cattan, the co-founder of Santa Ana-based nonprofit, Tiyya Foundation, dedicates her work to help re-establish a sense of home for refugees who have migrated to the United States. In 2017, she and the Tiyya Foundation established a culinary program called Flavors From Afar. The program helps refugees acquire cooking licenses and establish a catering network. It gives refugees a chance to find a new home. And for these people, home is not a physical place; it is the food they cook.
Hussein-Cattan is familiar with the refugee struggle. Her mother was an orphan in Ethiopia, who later, because of increasing violence in the region, fled to a refugee camp in Somalia. There, her mother dealt with scarce food rations and farming restrictions, sometimes walking miles to sell tomatoes for a few dollars a day. Meymuna was born in Somalia herself and eventually immigrated with her family to the United States.
“Tiyya developed organically from our commitment to help the refugee cause. I’ve spent my entire life watching my parents hope and prepare for the day they could go back to their home country and feel safe again.” When she was young, Meymuna and her family would cook sambusas (similar to a samosa) and brew traditional East African chai tea (milk, black tea, sugar, cardamom, cinnamon and other secret ingredients) for their newly-arrived refugee neighbors. Food became a new home for the community. For her, “Food has the ability to create trust and friendships. It was during these meals that families would be candid with us regarding their needs.”
Tiyya: The Start of Something New
Meymuna always kept her family’s story close to her heart. She became passionate about helping other refugee individuals and families. As part of her graduate thesis, Meymuna began her first steps towards establishing a nonprofit and raising awareness of the refugee cause. In time, this would become the Tiyya Foundation.
She had also been exploring the idea behind Flavors From Afar; however, circumstances left her to put her idea on hold. That is, until 2017, when she met Anas, a client of hers from Egypt. Together, with the involvement of her husband, volunteers and staff, Meymuna formed a committee and held auditions for Tiyya’s first batch of refugee chefs.
They brought together twelve refugee chefs, all of whom had previous culinary experience (professional or not). At the end of the process, five chefs were hired: Qasim and Liza from Afghanistan, Noor from Iraq, Malia from Somalia and Handullah from Syria. Flavors From Afar officially launched this past June. It continues to provide exciting, new, cultural culinary experiences to the area.
According to Meymuna, the purpose of Tiyya’s Flavors From Afar Program is two-fold. The first is to provide a support system to displaced refugees. Funds from the Flavors from Afar program get poured back into Tiyya’s many non-culinary programs, like family mentoring and soccer camps.
The second purpose is probably not as noticeable, though equally as important — to educate. There aren’t many people who can say they have had good Afghan or Somalian food. Flavors From Afar provides a unique cultural experience for Orange County that showcases the richness of diversity. Through the program, Meymuna hopes to bring attention to today’s most pressing problems. Problems like Orange County’s low-income food desert communities and the reduction of resettlement services for refugees. Food is a means of building community and creating a deep understanding and respect of one another.
The story behind the Tiyya Foundation is one that may not be personal, but it is one of extreme importance in this day-and-age. Every day, many refugees feel the pain of being forced out of the place they call home. But what Meymuna and the Tiyya Foundation shows us is that home can be found in many places: the welcome kindness and philanthropy of strangers, the powerful stories we continue to carry with us, and the experiences that we share with others. “It’s a long story, but food is what kept our family together and how we created a community with others in Orange County.”
Malia Hamza, SOMALIA
Malia and her family fled the Somalia Civil War and ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya. She arrived in the United States in the early 2000s with her older sister as refugees from East Africa. While living in Ohio, Malia became a child bride at the age of twelve and had her first child at age thirteen. She is now a single mother with six children. She ensures that her children participate in Tiyya’s programs on a regular basis. Meanwhile, she has become one of the featured chefs in Flavors From Afar.
All of her children participate in Tiyya’s soccer, tutoring and recreational activities. Tiyya’s family mentor, Bradley Curry, helped Malia pursue her GED. While Malia’s focus is on the well-being of her children, she also wants to speak out for other women in the community who are being abused and mistreated. One day, she hopes to write a book.
The Almiqdads, SYRIA
Together with their family, the Almiqdad sisters escaped violence in Daraa, Syria. Their father, Handullah, was a successful restaurant owner with goals to expand his business. Because of the war, his dreams and hard work vanished. In 2016, they were resettled in Orange County. Not knowing how to restart their lives in a foreign country, a neighbor referred them to Tiyya.
Handullah now continues to pursue his dreams with the help of Tiyya. He provides for his family by working at a restaurant and now caters through Tiyya’s Flavors From Afar. Today, the Almiqdad sisters attend elementary school. They say, “Math is easy but English is hard – nothing is spelled how it sounds!” Through Tiyya, their baby sister, Yasmine, receives a monthly delivery of diapers. Fadia, their mother, practices English while sharing her Syrian culture and learning about her Family Mentor’s American traditions. Each day, they feel more at home.
Visit Tiyya’s website to learn more about the Tiyya Foundation and catering from Flavors From Afar.