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Creating community through food and resiliency

Meymuna Hussein-Cattan poses in the kitchen of Flavors from Afar, a catering service staffed by former refugees in Little Ethiopia, Los Angeles. Photo by Lily Glass/provided by Hussein-Cattan

Neither COVID-19 nor fire damage can deter Meymuna Hussein-Cattan from her mission of supporting refugee families.

On World Refugee Day—June 20—we join people across the US to celebrate the courage and resilience of refugees—recognizing the hardships they have faced, the new lives they have created, and the positive impact they have around the world.

Meymuna Hussein-Cattan chose March 21 to open her catering service in Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia since the spring solstice is an auspicious time for many cultures. The location would showcase the international dishes created by chefs—former refugees—working for Flavors from Afar, a catering service she started in 2018 to train and employ former refugees and asylum seekers.

Unfortunately, that date coincided with the spread of the coronavirus and California’s stay-at-home order. So, Flavors from Afar quickly pivoted to a take-out operation, cooking up mouthwatering meals. Things were going smoothly, under the circumstances, until a fire broke out in a neighboring restaurant. Firefighters had to break down the café’s doors to put out the fire, leaving the business temporarily inoperable.

These events would overwhelm anyone, but Hussein-Cattan is not just anyone.

A snapshot of the food cooked by the chefs at Flavors from Afar, former refugees and asylum seekers who have undergone training to transform the traditional meals they would cook at home into catering dishes. Photo by Lily Glass/provided by Hussein-Cattan

Her story starts in Ethiopia in 1975. That’s when her mother—a 12-year-old orphan raised by extended family members—and father, 15, each fled their home country due to conflict and arrived in a camp for Ethiopian refugees in nearby Somalia. They met there years later, eventually married, and gave birth to Hussein-Cattan in the camp.

In 1983, the International Rescue Committee resettled her father in San Diego, California, and the following year, she and her mother were reunited with him. Hussein-Cattan was too young to remember much from the camp, but she recalls that for her parents, the transition from coming of age in a refugee camp to setting down roots in Southern California was difficult.

“Like most immigrant children, much of my experience was watching my parents navigate this country,” she says. “The difference for us was the inability to visit back home and knowing that we were here not by choice.”

Helping refugee families find their footing

The eldest of four daughters, Hussein-Cattan became the first in her family to graduate high school and complete graduate school. While completing her master’s thesis at Antioch University—she studied organizations that support young refugees raised in households dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder—Hussein-Cattan came up with the idea of starting a nonprofit with her mother, Owliya Dima, who was already helping recent refugees adjust to life in Orange County.

They established the Tiyya Foundation in 2010 with the mission of supporting families of refugees, low-income immigrants, and displaced Americans. Starting with a community needs assessment, Hussein-Cattan says the organization’s growth has been natural. Their first project was a youth soccer program, and then they expanded to recreational activities such as field trips, workshops, and tutoring.

In 2012, Dima took a step back from the foundation, and Hussein-Cattan took on the role of executive director. With a grant from the federal Refugee Cash Assistance Program, Tiyya Foundation started incorporating adult clients, offering job coaching and placement, employment workshops, and family mentoring to help families transition to self-sufficiency.

Hussein-Cattan spoke about her work with the Tiyya Foundation at an Oxfam-hosted World Refugee Day panel in Washington, DC, in 2019. Photo: Mohannad Rachid for Oxfam

Another roadblock materialized when the Trump administration cut funding for refugee aid, a crucial source of the foundation’s support. But Hussein-Cattan wasn’t fazed; she had always been interested in social enterprise, and now was the time to pursue a new model for the organization. A client proposed catering, which could be run from satellite kitchens, thereby reducing overhead costs. And so Flavors from Afar was born in 2018 as a sustainable model to train and employ former refugees as catering chefs, and to use the profits to continue the Tiyya Foundation’s programming.

Hussein-Cattan and founding member Christian Davis recruited chef Jalen Bennett this year to train the home chefs and hone their business skills (because of COVID-19, that training happens one on one instead of in groups). While the coronavirus forced Flavors of Afar to shift from dining to takeout, Hussein-Cattan says the foundation’s 10 years of community support have kept them going.

Since many of Hussein-Cattan’s clients are facing food insecurity right now, Flavors from Afar had launched a campaign with support from the Orange County Resiliency Fund to provide pantry items to families in need. For every meal purchased, the Tiyya Foundation gives families a kit of pantry items, such as oil, flour, and canned foods, to tide them over until they can afford essential items. Before they were forced to close, Flavors from Afar also hosted a happy hour on Sundays for doctors, nurses, baristas, and other essential workers.

Shut down, but not for long

And then the fire. “I got a frantic call that the restaurant two doors down was on fire,” Hussein-Cattan recounts. “In order to take out the fire, the firefighters had to break into our front and back door.” With smoke damage and no locks on their doors, the café had to close.

Within 24 hours, Flavors from Afar had a GoFundMe page up and running to get their doors fixed; Hussein-Cattan says they raised more than $6,000 in a matter of days. The business had to close for a full week, but at the time of this writing, they had received the all-clear from the health department and were gearing up to reopen for take-out and delivery.

“We’re getting back to business,” she says. “We just need a few weeks to catch our breath.”

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