Dining with a Purpose: Restaurant Serving Refugee Recipes Helps Immigrants Start New Lives in the United States

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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.

This is 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 relocated to Orange County, California when she was 3, and she knows firsthand how meaningful local dishes can be.

“For all refugees – and immigrants – food is a sense of self-preservation,” she said. “As long as you keep these family recipes, it really instills a sense of grounding (and) a sense of connection 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 is now a US citizen. But much of her life has been marked by her experience as a refugee.

“There was a lot of beauty, but at the same time there were shadows — anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim,” she said. “From an early age, I was aware that I was different. So being able to connect with anyone was… my super power.”

For more than a decade, Hussein-Cattan has used her super power to help newcomers to the United States. She and her mother established the Tiyya Foundation in 2010, which now provides free programs, resources and support to more than 200 refugee, immigrant and asylum-seeking families each year. Two years ago, she opened her restaurant to provide opportunities for immigrant chefs, celebrate their cultures and help fund her nonprofit organization.

She got the idea of ​​the people her organization served.

“I loved visiting the homes of refugee families and enjoying their hospitality. They had so little, but they always offered 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.”

Beginning in 2017, the number of refugees admitted to the United States — and funding for the organizations that support them — was drastically reduced, forcing Tiyya to lay off most of its staff. Hussein-Cattan was desperate to find sources of income to keep the nonprofit’s doors open, so her clients suggested starting a restaurant business, which she did in 2018. A Year Later , she won $50,000 in a local social innovation competition and connected with donors. who helped her open a restaurant.

Flavors From Afar opened in mid-March 2020 – the same week that stay-at-home orders were issued for the city during the coronavirus pandemic. But staff kept the effort afloat with curbside delivery and pickup until in-person dining resumed. Positive reviews — like being listed by LA Magazine as one of the city’s “101 Best Restaurants” — helped the business grow steadily.

But it’s more than just a business; it is a social enterprise which, according to Hussein-Cattan, returns 40% of its profits 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 staff in the preparation of each dish. Each star chef then receives 5% of the month’s gross profits, professional photographs of their dishes and assistance in finding employment in the culinary industry.

The restaurant has featured chefs from countries like Venezuela, Eritrea, Fiji, Haiti, Belize, Syria and Chechnya. While many 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 to celebrate everyone’s journey, by highlighting their creativity and culture.

“We are really changing the way refugees are viewed,” she said. “They are valued as a chef and they are respected for their kitchens. … They are the star here.”

Although the restaurant showcases everything immigrants have to offer, that’s only half the story. Ultimately, it is the Tiyya Foundation that has the greatest impact in providing people with the support they need to thrive.

Hussein-Cattan’s mother began 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 from the family garage. As teenagers, Hussein-Cattan and her three sisters were often recruited to help distribute these items to families in need.

“I remember being woken up one Saturday morning to go and move someone’s couch,” she said. “We would support her but we were very unhappy with it.”

When she was studying for her Masters in Commerce, she realized that her mother could access many more resources by becoming a non-profit organization. In 2010, they co-founded the Tiyya Foundation, taking the name from the word “my love” in her mother’s native language, Oromo. Two years later, Hussein-Cattan took over as head of the organization.

Today, Tiyya helps families with government benefits, housing and job 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 start over in a new country…it’s a lonely journey,” Hussein-Cattan said. “We want them to know 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 United States, including the Omid family, who arrived from Afghanistan in 2013.

“When I came to the United States, I started a new life from scratch,” said Mahmood Omid, who worked at the US embassy in Kabul. “I started with a menial job, a gas station… Housing problem, no transport, language problem for my wife. It was very hard. There was no one to help me.”

Tiyya provided the Omids with basic necessities and a family mentor, who helped Mahmood’s wife, Orbal, learn English. Eventually, Omid graduated from college and now works with the group as a case manager, helping recent Afghan refugees settle.

“Now I help over 200 families,” he said. “I encourage people, ‘I had the same problem, but you’re lucky. I can help you. You’re not alone.'”

This month, Orbal is August’s featured chef at Flavors From Afar. She aspires to open her own restaurant in the coming years.

People like the Omids keep Hussein-Cattan motivated and help her be proud of her own journey.

“All refugees are alchemists,” she said. “They are able to start their lives over, build their community, preserve their cultures, and turn a sense of loss into something beautiful.”

Want to get involved? Check Tiyya Foundation website and see how to help you.
To donate to the Tiyya Foundation via GoFundMe, Click here
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