Meymuna Hussein-Cattan
Meymuna Hussein-Cattan ’09. (Steve Zylius/UCI)

At Flavors from Afar in Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia neighborhood, a meal is so much more than mere nourishment. It is home. It is history. It is pride. And it is a delicious taste of the important work being performed since 2010 by Meymuna Hussein-Cattan ’09 – through her nonprofit Tiyya Foundation – in creating communities of support and economic opportunities for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Southern California.

Each month since the restaurant’s opening in March 2020, a different refugee or asylum seeker works with the head chef to create an authentic menu of their traditional cultural dishes. They gain valuable work experience in the culinary field, a portion of the sales, and an empowering opportunity to lead a conversation not with their trauma but with their strengths.

“When someone is starting over in a new country, they’re always the student,” Hussein-Cattan says. “They’re learning a new language, a new system. At Flavors from Afar, our chefs get to be the expert; they get to teach. They take a lot of pride in describing their cuisine to people who have never tried it before, and there’s a sense of enjoyment and connection to their home country.”

Her own family knows all too well the painful disconnect and isolation of resettlement. Hussein-Cattan’s mother was 12 and her father was 15 in 1975, when they fled internal conflict in Ethiopia for a refugee camp in Somalia, where they met. Hussein-Cattan was born in the camp; she moved to the United States, to Orange County, in 1984, when she was 3.

“I remember how challenging it was for my parents to feel at home and rooted here,” she recalls. “Their transition process was full of constant obstacles around resources and identity.”

Her mother, Owliya Dima, struggled to navigate public transit as well as the English language. “I was in ESL at school, so I would come home and tutor her while she was tutoring me,” Hussein-Cattan says.

When large numbers of East African refugees began arriving in Orange County in the 1990s, “my mom finally felt a sense of community and belonging,” Hussein-Cattan says. “She started volunteering at local resettlement agencies.”

Her mother’s volunteer efforts expanded as Hussein-Cattan pursued her bachelor’s degree at UCI in social science, with a specialization in multicultural studies. She was the first woman in her family to not only graduate from high school but attend college. “The classes I liked the most at UCI were those that were a fusion with the arts,” she says. “I took a Chicano studies course taught through film and an African American studies course taught through the lens of hip-hop. That incorporation of music and media to understand the dynamics of [the U.S.] was really interesting.”

While completing her master’s degree at Antioch University Los Angeles in organizational management, Hussein-Cattan surveyed organizations in Southern California that help refugee youth. “I noticed there were resources in San Diego and Los Angeles but not much in Orange County,” she says. So she and her mother co-founded the nonprofit Tiyya Foundation, named after the word for love in their native Oromo language. Today, Hussein-Cattan operates the foundation with her husband, Shukry Cattan.

Tiyya’s support programs focus on three core needs of the roughly 200 families served each year. “It comes down to making sure everyone is housed, everyone is employed and everyone feels like they’re part of a community,” Hussein-Cattan explains. In the second half of 2022, the foundation was able to house 16 families amid the always-tight housing market in Southern California and the compounded need presented by the recent influx of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Its community programs cover all age ranges. Coffee and Conversation helps newly arrived immigrant women engage in conversational English and establish cross-cultural friendships. Tea and Tots brings together mothers and their young children for play dates, companionship, gifts of diapers and school supplies, and workshops on parenting in America. And Tiyya’s year-round soccer league unites families around a sport loved across national boundaries.

“When someone is starting over in a new country, they’re always the student. They’re learning a new language, a new system. At Flavors from Afar, our chefs get to be the expert; they get to teach.”

The foundation’s economic advancement efforts have long included mock interviews, résumé development and job placement assistance. In 2022, 44 clients accepted jobs that earned them $1.6 million in combined wages. But the evolution of Flavors from Afar from a catering firm in 2018 into a wildly successful brick-and-mortar social enterprise diner in 2020 brought exciting new opportunities for Tiyya’s clients and earned the nonprofit not just local acclaim but national attention.

Despite opening the week the world shut down for the pandemic, Flavors from Afar has never faltered. Like Tiyya’s clients, the mission-minded restaurant has adapted to its challenging circumstances, serving only takeout at first and then gradually expanding for outdoor and indoor dining. Throughout, 40 percent of the profits from its “good food for a good cause” has gone directly to support Tiyya’s programs.

Flavors from Afar is now one of the hottest restaurants in town, with menus that have spanned the globe and alphabet, from Afghanistan and Belize to Syria and Venezuela. The eatery has twice made the Los Angeles Times’ “101 Best Restaurants in L.A.” list and in 2022 earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand award, which recognizes restaurants with the best value for the money.

“Creating Flavors from Afar has come from a place of joy and creativity and sharing,” Hussein-Cattan says. “I wanted to give others the opportunities that I wish my mom had, and it worked.”

In honor of her exceptional contributions to the immigrant community of Southern California, Hussein-Cattan was named one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2022, a designation that celebrates everyday people doing extraordinary things to change the world. “My vision was to help refugees, but I found so much healing as I was serving displaced people,” Hussein-Cattan said in her acceptance speech at the awards ceremony. “Everyone who gets involved is also seeking community. I realized that the work we do at Tiyya creates a sense of home for all of us.”