The pandemic has ushered in an era that has proved to be the hardest time to own and operate a restaurant. But that hasn’t stopped Meymuna Hussein-Cattan and Christian Davis from opening one the same week Mayor Eric Garcetti issued Safer At Home orders for the city of Los Angeles in the third week of March.
At Flavors From Afar’s brick and mortar location in Little Ethiopia (located in L.A.'s Mid-Wilshire district), the menu changes every two weeks, intermittently featuring cuisines from numerous countries: Belize, Guatemala and Venezuela to Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya. There’s more behind the menus than variety, however. Each one has a story behind it, and that is the life of a cook who has found a new beginning in the U.S.
Program instructor Jalen Bennett, who used to work at Eataly L.A., trains each cook and perfects each recipe so they are restaurant-ready. Just a handful of quality dishes comprise the menu each time, but since they’re so good, loyalists come back for more every rotation.
Flavors From Afar began as the catering segment of a non-profit called Tiyya Foundation, founded in 2010 by Meymuna Hussein-Cattan and her mother, Owliya Dima. Meaning “my love” in Oromo, the word “Tiyya” aptly describes the core mission of the organization. It promotes self-sufficiency for refugees, immigrants, and displaced persons in Los Angeles and Orange County through various services such as tutoring, sports programs, counseling, donation networks, and more.
Profits from Flavors From Afar help fund Tiyya’s local programming for refugee and immigrant youth, and is a way to realize a sustainable business model outside government grants. Not only are the chefs of Flavors From Afar now part of a restaurant, being credited and compensated for their labor, they also receive a commission whenever their dishes are sold to customers.
One chef, Malia Hamza, 30, brings her flavorful Somali roasted chicken rice bowl and crispy, flaky sambusas to the restaurant, making it one of the only places in L.A. to serve food from this East-African region. Rufai and her sister had fled Somalia during the civil war and ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya before being granted asylum and resettling in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of nine in 1997. Horrific domestic abuse took hold as she became a bride at the age of 12, pregnant by 13.
Hamza would find her way through Ohio and Arizona before finally breaking free of her abuser and moving to Orange County, where she met Hussein-Cattan. Tiyya provided training to help Hamza earn her GED, baby registry donations for her newborn, tutoring and youth soccer programs for her five (now six) children, plus consistent hours at the permanent Flavors From Afar location that go beyond what was once the occasional catering gig. “I was so happy after [Meymuna] opened the restaurant because now I have [another] job. I used to hate driving [from Orange County] but I like coming because I love the people working there,” says Hamza.
Another chef, Maria Galban, 63, highlights her arepas, an ancestral and native corn cake, whenever Flavors From Afar features her Venezuelan menu. Galban is also a potter who arrived in Los Angeles from Venezuela four years ago to escape political turmoil. She brings to her recipes a lifetime’s experience with food, having cooked with her Swiss best friend and Italian neighbor in her hometown—one that attracted many tourists and overlooked the Caribbean Sea. Galban also studied with a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef while at boarding school in London and Macrobiotics with a student of the Michio Kushi School.
“But now I understand that individuality is so important. Everybody is different. What is good for one person is maybe poison for another one,” Galban explains. “Food is information for your body. Good food and good nutrition is healing.”
Galban spreads the message of love through the native corn with which she makes each arepa. “Since we Venezuelans are spread all over the world, so are arepas. Arepas have been a blessing because people of all professions—even doctors—have had to leave the country and couldn’t find jobs, so they make a living selling arepas,” says Galban. “You can fill them with whatever you want; they’re so easy to carry, so easy to eat and healthy.”
Menal Kidane, who fled the totalitarian government in her native Eritrea, migrated solo to the Los Angeles area through South and Central America. She worked with Bennett and Davis to create a house recipe at Flavors From Afar based on zigni, a traditional beef stew from her homeland. Together, they came up with a unique lamb shank dish using similar spices found in the stew, but given a new flavor dimension with a different protein.
Hussein-Cattan is no stranger to resettlement; her own mother, Dima, fled Ethiopia to a refugee camp in Somalia, where Hussein-Cattan would be born. Both immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s, where Hussein-Cattan became the first woman in her family to graduate from high school and the first person to earn a Master’s degree. Drawing upon her mother’s difficulties integrating into American society—but also her efforts in paving the way for other refugees—Hussein-Cattan turned her mother’s work into her thesis project, and together they founded Tiyya in 2010.
Though Dima is now retired, Hussein-Cattan has continued to carry out her mother’s important work, along with Davis and Bennett. At the time of Trump’s election, Tiyya had a government contract. Cut after cut to the Refugee Resettlement Program, however, meant that for all of 2019, only 18,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S.—just a fraction of the 110,000 Obama allowed by his last year in office. For the future of Tiyya, Hussein-Cattan had to plot her organization’s future without government assistance. Realizing the potential of their catering business, the Tiyya founders and employees made Flavors From Afar into a restaurant, as fleshed out in their Fairfax Avenue brick and mortar location as well as in their kitchen space in Costa Mesa at Hood Kitchen.
Whether non-profit or for-profit, nothing could have prepared any restaurant for what hit in mid-March. Plans for a tasting festival to introduce the social enterprise and their hard-to-find cuisines to the public turned into efforts to get listed on every available food delivery app. “We’ve been catering for two years, so we’re really confident about the food. We want to expand out of our immediate network,” says Davis. “A lot of people in L.A. identify as foodies but they don’t have exposure to immigrant dishes like the ones you find in homes. That’s what you can find here.”