Meymuna Hussein-Cattan creates a space for refugees through her Santa Ana-based organization, The Tiyya Foundation.
For many years Meymuna Hussein-Cattan felt invisible, with no place to tell her story. And what a story it is. Survival. Starting over in a new world. Paving the way for her family — all thousands of miles from her birthplace.
“There’s no way to talk about it. You either hide it or you only speak out if you need help,” said Hussein-Cattan, who was born in an Ethiopian refugee camp in Somalia and came to the U.S. in 1984 as a 3-year-old with her parents. “I wanted to create a space where you don’t have to only speak up if you need help, but you could speak out and say, ‘These are the things that I’ve overcome and these are the challenges, the lessons that I’ve learned along the way.’”
For the past 12 years, she’s been creating that space through her Santa Ana-based organization, The Tiyya Foundation, which assists refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers and other displaced communities from all over the world in creating a new life in America. The nonprofit’s name, Tiyya, means “my love” in Ethiopian Oromo language. Right now, they’re working with 217 families, close to their annual average of about 250 families.
Aside from the logistics of settling in a foreign land, Hussein-Cattan helps refugees find communities where they can embrace their strength and stories of their survival and connect with others who share similar experiences.
“They feel respected, they feel seen, they feel like they have a sense of community,” said the organization’s CEO.
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That community includes parents from around the world, and it’s for them that Hussein-Cattan, mother to a 5-year-old girl, Suraya, and a baby on the way with her husband, Shukry Cattan, created some of the foundation’s latest programs. Each month, Tea & Tots brings together about 50 families and donors to a casual playdate at a park in Anaheim where the kids are gifted toys, diapers and school supplies.
“What I love about the event is that I find a space for my children to play in the park and meet other children,” said through an interpreter, mother of two Shaima Al Dahan, who moved to the U.S. from Iraq in 2019.
Another program, Coffee and Conversation, connects six to 10 women at a time to chat and practice their English. There’s something for the dads too since the foundation launched fishing trips this year.
“It’s peaceful out there in the ocean and you’re building community and friendships with other men who are just as stressed out as you are, so it’s nice. It’s very therapeutic,” she said.
One of the better-known ventures at Tiyya Foundation is Flavors from Afar, a restaurant in L.A.’s Little Ethiopia district that features a changing menu of dishes from refugee cooks. It opened during the pandemic and has already earned the ranking as one of the top restaurants in Los Angeles.
And while she doesn’t identify herself as a refugee, Hussein-Cattan has seen her parents’ transition as they slowly let go of their old life and the dream of moving back to Ethiopia. She’s the first woman in her family to graduate high school and the first person in her family to earn a master’s degree — organizational management from Antioch University after a bachelor’s degree in multicultural studies and social sciences from UCI. Her work at Tiyya Foundation is a blend of experience, education and passion.
“I think our model is easily duplicated, and I’d like to see it in different chapters in different states,” she said. “Hopefully, five years from now Tiyya isn’t just in Southern California.”
By Magda Hernandez