Located in the enclave of Little Ethiopia, Flavors From Afar is a restaurant that defies categorization, with a menu that changes monthly to feature dishes from the homeland of a refugee or immigrant chef.
It’s the vision of Meymuna Hussein Cattan. Her parents fled Ethiopia in the 1970s and met in a refugee camp in Somalia, where she was born. Her family resettled in California’s Orange County when she was 3, and she knows firsthand how meaningful native dishes can be.
“For all refugees — and immigrants — food is a sense of self preservation,” she said. “As long as you preserve those family recipes, it really instills a sense of rootedness (and) feeling connected to your cultural upbringing.”
In many ways, Hussein-Cattan achieved the American dream. She was the first woman in her family to graduate from high school, the first person to earn a master’s degree and she is now a United States citizen. But much of her life was colored by her experience as a refugee.
“There was a lot of beauty, but at the same time, there were shadows — anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim,” she said. “From a very young age I was aware that I’m different. So, being able to connect with anyone was … my superpower.”
She got the idea from the people her organization served.
“I loved visiting the homes of refugee families and enjoying their hospitality. They had so little, but they were always offering me tea, coffee, dinner,” she said. “And I felt like I was so lucky. I was trying international cuisines that aren’t the typical dishes on restaurant menus.”
Starting in 2017, the number of refugees admitted to the US — and funding for organizations that support them — was greatly reduced, forcing Tiyya to lay off most of its staff. Hussein-Cattan was desperate to find sources of revenue to keep the nonprofit’s doors open, so her clients suggested starting a catering business, which she did, in 2018. A year later, she won $50,000 at a local social innovation competition and connected with donors who helped her open a restaurant.
But this is more than just a business; it’s a social enterprise that’s Hussein-Cattan says sends 40% of its profits back to the Tiyya Foundation. Each month an immigrant chef is selected to be featured and works closely with the restaurant’s executive chef, Kenna Copes, to develop their family recipes into a restaurant menu and train the staff how to prepare each dish. Each featured chef then receives 5% of that month’s gross profits, professional photographs of their food and assistance finding jobs in the culinary industry.
The restaurant has featured chefs from places like Venezuela, Eritrea, Fiji, Haiti, Belize, Syria and Chechnya. While several of these individuals have gone on to careers in the food industry, for Hussein-Cattan, the restaurant is about more than career development. It’s a way of celebrating each person’s journey, by honoring their creativity and culture.
“We’re really shifting how refugees are viewed,’ she said. “They are highlighted as a chef and they are respected for their cuisines. … Here, they are the star.”
While the restaurant showcases all that immigrants have to offer, that’s only half the story. Ultimately, it’s the Tiyya Foundation that has the greatest impact by providing people with the support they need to thrive.
Hussein-Cattan’s mother started this work in the late 1990s as a volunteer translator with nonprofits helping resettle refugees. Knowing the challenges they faced, she began collecting donated furniture and supplies in the family garage. As a teenager, Hussein-Cattan and her three sisters were often recruited to help distribute these items to families in need.
“I remember being woken up on a Saturday morning to go move someone’s couch,” she said. “We would support her but we were very disgruntled about it.”
When she was studying for her master’s degree in business, she realized that her mother could access many more resources by becoming a nonprofit. In 2010, they co-founded the Tiyya Foundation, taking the name from the word for ‘my love’ in her mother’s native language, Oromo. Two years later, Hussein-Cattan took over leadership of the organization.
Today, Tiyya assists families with government benefits, housing and career placement and connects them with volunteer ‘family mentors’ who help them learn English and navigate cultural issues. The group also offers a host of programs to help families socialize.
“When you’re starting over in a new country … it’s a lonely journey,” Hussein-Cattan said. “We want them to know that they’re not alone. We want to create a sense of community.”
She says the group has helped thousands of families transition to life in the US, including the Omid family, who arrived from Afghanistan in 2013.
“When I came to the United States, I start the new life from zero,” said Mahmood Omid, who worked at the American embassy in Kabul. “I started with a low-level job, a gas station. … Housing problem, no transportation, a language problem for my wife. It was very hard. There was no one to help me.”
Tiyya provided the Omids with the basic necessities and a family mentor, who helped Mahmood’s wife, Orbal, learn English. Eventually, Omid got his college degree and he now works with the group as a case manager, helping recent Afghan refugees get settled.
“Now I’m helping more than 200 families,” he said. “I encourage the people: ‘I had the same problem, but you are lucky. I can help you. You are not alone.'”
People like the Omids keep Hussein-Cattan motivated and help her take pride in her own journey.
“All refugees are alchemists,” she said. “They’re able to start their lives over, build their community, preserve their cultures and transform a sense of loss into just something beautiful.”