The Tiyya Foundation is a non-profit organization that assists and accommodates refugees and their families. The foundation was co-founded by Owliya Dima and her daughter Meymuna Hussein-Cattan, who are refugees from Ethiopia. Since 2010, Tiyya has grown and nourished into an organization that supports and raises awareness about multicultural refugee communities in Orange County. InSight Magazine was able to spend some time with Tiyya’s Program Manager, Laura Leslie, to get more of an insight into the organization. Laura oversees the Youth ALL S.T.A.R. Program and Adult L.E.A.D Program.
Interviewed by Shelley Kashyap
How did Tiyya start and how has it evolved into what it is now?
Owliya and her husband met in a refugee camp in Somalia after they had both fled from Ethiopia in the 1970s due to civil unrest and violence. It was at that camp that they had their daughter Meymuna. Around 1983, Owliya’s husband resettled in San Diego, and, a year later, Owliya and Meymuna joined him. They knew firsthand the struggle of moving to the US with lack of language support, jobs, and basic necessities a family should have.
Can you afford the bed? Where do you get all the items that are essential to living like a decent human being? So, Owliya started to give back to the community; she’d get a bed and she’d give it to a family who needed it — or even a couch. They would rent a U-Haul truck and take it to a family who needed it. Meymuna, who was in school at the time, made Tiyya her thesis project and her professor encouraged her to open a nonprofit. And so Owliya and Meymuna founded Tiyya. It started as a delivery service for basic necessities and they realized that the kids didn’t really have much. They were playing in back alleys and there wasn’t a lot of green space, and so Owilya and Meymuna decided to partner with Soccer Without Borders in 2010.
The organization was founded by refugees for refugees, now it encompasses low-income immigrants and displaced Americans, and we try to help them with resettling in a new country. Families of low-income immigrants often have the same barriers as refugees: not knowing the language, having work experience that doesn’t translate over, or education that doesn’t translate either.
“Families of low-income immigrants often have the same barriers as refugees: not knowing the language, having work experience that doesn’t translate over, or education that doesn’t translate either.”
Why did the foundation decide to partner with soccer without borders in 2010? Why soccer?
Meymuna didn’t have any background in soccer, it was purely that the kids needed an outlet. We were expecting 30 kids to come out and participate, yet 64 came out. You could tell there was a need. And so when we were there, the parents said thank you. It was a week-long session, but we would like more outlets, more activities for the kids and tutoring. So they added a tutoring component and held trips for the kids. About a year later, the parents showed their appreciation but expressed their need for jobs. So then Tiyya added the Family Mentor Program — that’s where we pair an individual from the community with our clients. So for adults, that means helping them with English or helping them with jobs — which is going over their resume, going over interview skills, how to apply for jobs. Throughout the years it has grown organically. It’s been a matter of people asking for something and Tiyya saying we’re going to implement it because we see a need. Currently we have 3 different programs: we have Youth All STAR (which is soccer), Tutoring, Arts, and Recreation.
And you have the family mentoring as well?
The tutoring is done through a family mentor. It’s one-on-one at their home. And as part of our programs we also include the Diaper Program: once a month we give a pack of diapers and a pack of wipes to the families. It’s donation-based, so as long as we have the donations, we can do it. Then we also have our annual back to school celebration, which is more of a family event, but it’s to get the kids excited for school since education is the way to success. We give them brand new school supplies, backpacks, and we gave them haircuts last year. We try to make it a family event.
We have some activities for the adults as well and there’s a Tiyya talent show. For the adults we have LEAD, which is Leadership, Employment, Advancement, and Development, so that’s the Family Mentoring where you’re learning English or getting job coaching. We also have workforce coaching which is done here at our office but in partnership with a company. We have a company’s employee come in and coach. We also have marriage and family therapy that takes place. And then the third program is our Friends of Tiyya, which is for anyone who wants to donate their time, resources, or their money.
“Tiyya was chosen because it’s a word that’s familiar to the ear. It’s a bird in some languages. It’s used to name daughters. It means aunt in Spanish, so it’s just a familiar sound. But in Oromo, which is one of the languages spoken in Ethiopia where Meymuna is from, it means “my love, my dear.” So that’s how they view the refugee populations. It’s not just a random word, and it’s not an acronym, “My love, my dear.”
What exactly do family mentors do?
Family Mentors commit to a six month period of meeting with clients once a week for at least an hour. During that time, we have an agreement where they put down goals having to do with English or job coaching. Job coaching could include anything, even getting a Linkedin account set up — anything related to jobs. Other things that come up would be the process of applying to college or getting a driver’s license. We are committed to helping in any way possible, as long as we recognize it as a step toward self-sufficiency, the volunteer is welcome to help. The goals and majority of the time should be focused towards building self-sufficiency.
How do language barriers work with the tutoring and resume coaching? Is there a language most of the refugees speak if it’s not english?
I would say the main languages in our office would be Arabic, Farsi, and Spanish, but we have a variety of other languages. We have translators. My colleague Jasmine translates Farsi, I translate Spanish, and we have the interns help with Arabic, so there’s always someone who can understand the language, to be able to do the initial intake if that’s a barrier. If their level of English is very low, that has to be the focus before we work on resumes with them, so we encourage them to take English classes and pair them with Family Mentors for English coaching. We have to make sure their level of English is good enough for an interview before we can do resumes.
How many people would you say you tend to assist at a time?
We service low-income immigrants, refugees, and displaced Americans, so any number I give you would include that whole population. December 2016, we served 130 families, which means 434 individuals in those families. December 2017, 285 families, that’s 795 individuals. And as of March this year, it’s 316 families, which is 878 individuals. We think this year we’ll be able to service 400 families, even with the new government being stricter on who can come in. We’re still getting clients coming in.
Do you coordinate with resettlement agencies?
We’re not a resettlement agency, which is the initial agency that greets the refugees. A lot of people don’t know that if people get refugee status before they come in, they get travel loans for their flights, so they come in with debt. Their flights are booked for them and someone greets them at the airport who is in charge of their first 90 days in the US. After the first 90 days, they don’t have that support. So we’re more for the long term, once the first 90 days are over and you have to get your kids enrolled in school, get paperwork, get Medical. Once it settles down a little bit, you realize you’re still missing a bed or a driver’s license. That’s where we step in.
We used to be more in touch with resettlement agencies, but as of this year there are no more resettlement agencies in Orange County. Due to funding cuts, there are no more in Orange County, it’s only in LA County. People who come into LA County might not stay there, they might make their way to Orange County, but since there aren’t resettlement agencies here anymore, we’re only coordinating with them in LA County.
In the years that Tiyya has existed, since 2010, have the countries that most refugees are from changed in correspondence with international conflict and where it’s at?
Yes. There were more refugees from Iran before, Syria wasn’t as big, and we used to get people from East Europe. Once in a while we still get refugees from East Europe. The other day I talked to someone from Romania who was seeking our support.
Our top countries are Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Latin America, and Somalia probably. Or really East Africa. I say that because there are a lot of people like the founder Meymuna who was born in a camp in Somalia, but really she’s Ethiopian.
How do people hear about your office and sign up to become clients? Do refugees have to provide proof of being displaced or low-income?
Most people hear about us from word-of-mouth. A lot of our clients live in the same community, so when you’re asking for information, people who live near you will tell you. “Tiyya does diapers, Tiyya provides this other service,” and the process is that they have to come in for an intake. For low-income individuals, we need something to show that they’re low income in general: perhaps they’re receiving food stamps, Medical, CalWorks, anything that shows they’re receiving government assistance. And then our diaper program is only for families who have been in the US for 5 years or less, because we want to make sure it’s an immediate need. And the last part of the intake process is getting to know the situation — how many people do you share your apartment with? Do you have enough money to buy clothes for your kids? Sometimes, it’s just socialization, like if you’re a single mom it can get really lonely so it’s good to know that you’ll see your Family Mentor every week. The last part of the intake process is getting to know them so we can know how to best serve them.
Why Orange County in particular?
We started in Orange County because Meymuna and her family lived here. We actually just opened an office in LA County, but we’re not ready to serve the public there yet. We’re just beginning to prepare the staff. We want to expand because we know there’s a need. LA and San Diego are impacted counties. They get a lot of refugees, so we want to address the need.
Where does the name Tiyya come from?
Tiyya was chosen because it’s a word that’s familiar to the ear. It’s a bird in some languages. It’s used to name daughters. It means aunt in Spanish, so it’s just a familiar sound. But in Oromo, which is one of the languages spoken in Ethiopia where Meymuna is from, it means “my love, my dear.” That’s how they view the refugee populations. It’s not just a random word and it’s not an acronym — “My love, my dear.”