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Refugee chefs work in culinary arts with help from a Santa Ana nonprofit

Refugee chefs work in culinary arts with help from a Santa Ana nonprofit
Meymuna Hussein-Cattan, left, started Tiyya Foundation, which supports refugee chefs such as Liza Popal, right, through its Flavors from Afar program. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

One of Liza Popal’s favorite foods is mantu.

A staple of Afghan cuisine, mantu is a dumpling filled with seasoned ground beef and onions, and topped with yogurt and tomato sauce.

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Popal, who is a self-taught chef, mostly had prepared mantu for family while living in her native Afghanistan. But after coming to Orange County as a refugee in 2016, the 25-year-old is now using her culinary skills as part of an innovative local catering project.

“Before, no one understood — just my family,” Popal said of her cooking. “But when I make something that other people like, I said, ‘Maybe I can start this as a business.’”

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Flavors from Afar is a newly launched program of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Tiyya Foundation that supports refugee chefs by hiring them to work in a catering business, helping them get home cooking licenses and connecting them to customers.

The chefs specialize in Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian and Somali cuisine.

“I want to help incubate those that want to express themselves through culinary arts and to be a platform for them to start their own restaurants and start their own businesses,” said Meymuna Hussein-Cattan, co-founder and executive director of Tiyya.

Hussein-Cattan, 37, and her mother, Owliya Dima — both refugees from Somalia — started Tiyya in 2010 to support other refugee and low-income immigrant families in the area. Last year, Tiyya — which means “my love” in their native language — served 795 people through a team of more than 150 volunteers and programs such as a youth soccer camp, diaper drives, school tutoring, workforce training and marriage and family therapy.

“It was based on what they needed that Tiyya was responding to,” said Hussein-Cattan.

Between 2011 and 2016, 1,491 refugees were resettled in Orange County. But under the Trump administration’s refugee polices, the number of refugees coming into the region has slowed.

The idea for Flavors from Afar came about after Hussein-Cattan looked at the marketable skills her clients had. Several were chefs in their home countries, and others were home cooks. Tiyya had also been organizing monthly dinners for local residents to go to refugee homes and have dinner together, and the food always got good reviews.

“So we thought, ‘Why don’t we now provide a delivery service or a catering service — bringing the food to people instead of having people come to us — and create really great revenues for these families?’” Hussein-Cattan said.

Tiyya hosted a cooking competition, with 12 chefs preparing appetizers, main courses and desserts for a panel of 10 judges. Five were then selected for the program.

In addition to catering, the chefs can also be hired for private cooking lessons and to give talks about their food and experiences coming to the United States as refugees.

“I see Tiyya as a bridge for local residents and new arrivals,” said Hassan-Cattan.

For the chefs, the goal is to build up their own clientele so that they can eventually start businesses independent of Tiyya — and for Tiyya to bring in new chefs to support.

Popal said that she hopes to open her own restaurant one day where she can make mantu and other favorite dishes such as bolani, a lightly fried flatbread filled with potatoes or other vegetables. In the meantime, she lives in Anaheim with her husband and 2-year old son, and will start classes at Fullerton College this year.

“I’m very happy with this program because when I started I didn’t know I could make something,” she said. “Now that I’ve started, I understand everything.”

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