The nonprofit enables refugees, immigrants, and displaced American families to actively participate in their new community.
by Portia Ladrido
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was established by the Obama administration in 2012 to essentially give leeway to minors who are refugees and immigrants, whilst they enable themselves to secure proper documentation. This September, however, Donald Trump ended this immigration policy, endangering the stability of over 750,000 people who have the permission to stay and contribute to the country under DACA.
Being a foreigner in a country — let alone an immigrant or a refugee — can already be daunting. It feels as if you are in a perpetual state of an identity crisis, only because it’s been made logically easier to believe that if you were not born to a country, you shouldn’t have the right to be there. This “otherness” that refugees and immigrants often feel is what the Tiyya Foundation seeks to address. Not only are they catering to people who come from outside of the U.S., but also those who may have been displaced within the country as well.
INKLINE talks to the founder of Tiyya Foundation, Meymuna Hussein-Cattan, an Ethiopian who believe in the power of community and inclusivity.
INKLINE: What nudged you to start Tiyya Foundation? What is your background and how did that relate to the core values of the organisation?
Meymuna Hussein-Cattan: I was born in an Ethiopian refugee camp in Somalia. My parents and I resettled in the United States back in the early 80’s, and it took them over a decade to feel at home here. Like many immigrant stories, I was the first woman to graduate from high school and the first person in my family to obtain a Master’s degree. Growing up, I witnessed my mom giving to the local refugee or immigrant population, and her work turned into my thesis project. I was curious to know what resources were available for the families she served, and was surprised to find out that resources were scarce. With the help of my professors, mom and I expanded my thesis into a startup nonprofit. Tiyya has continued to grow since 2010.
On a personal level, I also know that most refugee families, like mine, believe that they will return “back home” when things get better. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most of us. Knowing this from personal experience, I knew that we could focus on children feeling rooted in the United States as their parents get situated. What started as a soccer camp back in 2010 (with coaches from Soccer with Borders), expanded into a wraparound program where we help children and parents. Our programmes are focused on self-sufficiency so families can get on their feet quicker.
I: Can you course us through the types of programmes you run at Tiyya? How exactly are you helping minorities and refugees?
M: Imagine if you lost your home and found yourself in a new state or a new country with nothing but the clothes on your back. Whether you’re a refugee from abroad, a US Citizen that was internally displaced, like being a victim of a hurricane, Tiyya would be your anchor in the community. We have a network of volunteers that will support you with basic needs like diapers, neighbourhood orientation, networking, and workforce training, while helping your children make new friends, receive free tutoring, and participate in our recreational activities.
It’s the type of program where anyone who lost everything could still maintain their sense of self-efficacy knowing that they’re not alone. Once you’re back on your feet, we would invite you to pay it forward by joining a task-force or becoming a donor. Many of the parents we work with take pride in giving back so it’s great to see things move in full circle.
I: Seeing as the political climate in the US now has a lot to do with racial politics, how do you think Tiyya can come in and address this problem in the grassroots?
M: We’re the bridge builders. We help connect the local community to the newcomer. We connect newcomers to existing institutions much larger than Tiyya. We give those who want to give back and volunteer a hands-on experience. What’s most important to me is that we treat our volunteers and refugees or immigrant families like equals. We don’t offer clients a “mentor” so they could only receive help, we let them know that it’s their opportunity to be the teacher.
I: What are the biggest issues that your beneficiaries face? And can you give us examples of stories of your beneficiaries where you really saw how your programmes have helped?
M: We have one client named Rana [named changed for privacy purposes] who we’ve witnessed plant her roots here. She came to the US a year ago on a Special Immigrant Visa with her family. They were reunited with her older brother and relatives who resettled in Orange County a few years ago. Individuals with Special Immigration Visas are those who worked for the United States government in their home countries. Rana’s relatives worked on a US military base in Iraq. They received a lot of threats and had to flee the country for safety.
When she first stepped in Tiyya’s office, Rana didn’t speak a word of English. Jasmine Afshar, our case manager remembers when Rana couldn’t understand the question “What’s your name?”. Rana attended our Vocational English as a Second Language classes and became fluent in just three months. She was eager to obtain a driver’s license, to begin working, and to pursue higher education — opportunities that were not available to her in Iraq. Rana was paired with a Tiyya family mentor who met with her each week to help her achieve those goals. She now drives, she’s enrolling in college, and obtained full-time work. Rana continues to visit the office and stays connected with the Tiyya community. She’s now providing translation and mentorship to other Arabic-speaking families that have newly arrived.
Rana represents hundreds of Tiyya clients who were forcibly displaced. Participants of our programme are referred by word-of-mouth. Some either arrived here as refugees, are children of refugees, or they are in the process of receiving asylum status. Others are low-income immigrants who have lived here for a while but had trouble integrating. We also service displaced American families who were and are affected by various climate issues — fires, hurricanes, etc.
With the current political climate, isolation has intensified for many refugee communities as new immigrants are viewed as the “dangerous other”. Throughout our client population and across the country, families experience shared themes: isolation, lack of familial or social support for necessities, neighbourhood orientation, and difficulty finding sustained support past their initial resettlement phase. Our displaced American families also feel a sense of insecurity after losing everything. To them, crisis only happens on the news. At Tiyya, we’re constantly reminding the community that displacement could happen to anyone of us. That’s why our motto and hashtag is “We Share the Sky”.
“With the current political climate, isolation has intensified for many refugee communities as new immigrants are viewed as the ‘dangerous other’.”
I: What has been the most satisfying thing about pursuing your cause?
M: I’m a first-time mom and currently on maternity leave, and my daughter is now 11 weeks old. While I’m away, it’s wonderful to see my team, Jasmine and Laura, take the lead and treat our families like their own. As a founder, I think that’s the goal. We all want to know that our work can sustain itself and can be nurtured by the community. My very favourite part of it all is the refugee parents who call me and make personal visits to meet my baby, or just call and check in to make sure I’m okay and “sleeping when she sleeps”.
I: Where do you see Tiyya going? Any future plans that you might want to share to our readers?
M: We’ve done an amazing job in Orange County and I’m excited to announce that we’re opening our next chapter in Los Angeles this fall. Tiyya received seed-funding from the City of Los Angeles, Mayor’s Office because they want to see our programmes expand into the Greater LA region. Hopefully, more counties will take notice and we could expand on a national level. We’re also looking for investors to meet with one-on-one. Tiyya is ready to venture into a social enterprise model where we could provide employment for our clients while ensuring sustainability for the community.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in countercultures and social justice. She has written for Radio Times, Because London, Very Nearly Almost, The Metropolist, and other independent publications. She’s usually looking for new exhibitions to visit, new social media trends to try, new books to read, and new gummy bear flavours to munch on until she falls asleep.