My parents and I came to the United States as refugees from East Africa back in the early 1980’s. Growing up in Orange County, most of my friends were immigrants and/or children of immigrants which influenced my interest in multicultural communities. Later, I grew to become the first woman in my family to obtain a High School Diploma and first person in my family to complete grad school. During my undergrad years at UCI, my focus was on Multicultural Studies and I pursued a Masters in Organizational Management at Antioch University, Los Angeles. My goal was to become a Director at a Museum or Community-Based Organization (both in the nonprofit field). Little did I know that I would end up starting a nonprofit alongside my mother that incorporated both of my interests, The Tiyya Foundation.
Who’s in your family? Ages? Names?
I grew up in a household with both parents and my 3 younger sisters, who are all grown up now, and we’re really close. I recently started a family of my own, with my husband Shukry Cattan. We’ve been married 6 years and now have a 5 week infant at home, Suraya Bontu Cattan.
How did you choose your child’s name?
Suraya was named after her aunt and grandmother on Shukry’s side. The name is beautiful to me because it means star constellations (‘the Pleiades’ or ‘the Seven Sisters’) and has so many stories from different parts of the world. Bontu is an Oromo and Gharri word (my family’s language) which means Pride or Proud.
I consider Los Angeles and Orange County my home. I’ve grown up here, went to school here, and now raising my daughter here. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.
What’s on your manifest board?
• Expanding The Tiyya Foundation into Los Angeles and San Diego so we could help more low-income immigrant and refugee families.
• Creating a social enterprise component to the organization, such as an international teahouse
• Traveling the world with my husband and daughter
• Having one more child before I’m 40
• Signing up for classes in dance and photography
• Cooking from scratch more
Tell us some of your most loved ways to spend the day with your clan?
What are some silly/fun things that the kids do or say?
We work with youth of all ages at Tiyya and it’s great to experience the world through their lens. I don’t have one example, but I love their honesty for sure! They will let you know exactly what they do and don’t like.
When you were a teenager what did you dream of? Do things look different?
It was during my teenage years where I self-proclaimed myself as a “Student of Life”. To this day I still feel like a sponge, finding opportunities to learn and grow each day. It keeps me creative.
What are some things you really believe in?
God and Good People.
Where do your passions lie?
I think of myself as a “Creative”, which means I enjoy thinking outside of the box and adding some vibrancy to whatever I do, whether that be; community organizing, gathering stories, creating programs, taking photos, writing, event planning, etc… It just makes life more enjoyable and it helps me not see my work as a “job”.
Has your relationship with your other half changed since having kids?
Yes! I love him more. It’s heartwarming to see your partner transform into a parent. He’s so fun and energetic with Suraya, it’s great to watch their dynamic. It reminds me of how I still see my Dad as my hero.
What are some of your favorite life lessons you’ve grown to love? (even if learning them at the time was hard)
That life is short but should be treated like a long-term marathon. Whether its work, goals, or relationships … you want to create a longterm approach instead of seeking instant/quick outcomes. This turns into friends that you could grow old with, jobs that turn into careers, and even healthy foods that turn into lifestyles.
What do you wish you could’ve told yourself when you were a teenager?
Keep your friends, work hard to stay in touch. I only have one High School friend, Jovan Clay, that I stay in touch with, offline. Even though she lives in New York and I live in SoCal, we make the effort to visit each other and talk on the phone regularly. Since our connection grew strong over the years, it makes me regret losing touch with other High School friends. We’re connected on social media, of course, but it doesn’t feel the same.
What do you find most challenging about being somebody’s parent?
Since Suraya is so young, we’re living a cocoon right now. The challenging part is maintaining our energy level throughout the day and night so we’re 100% present for her. This means that my husband and I will work in shifts – but that adds another layer of challenges where we must make time for each other each day to simply talk about our day or say “I love you”.
I think if she only received info through the internet or TV, it would only create fears of the unknown – and that would be a shame. I want to travel with her as much as possible so she could see the world and it’s beauty and similarities. By providing her more exposure, I want her to feel connected with everyone she meets.
• A supportive partner
• My family when I need a break
• My friends to keep me balanced
Since then, they have made an enormous impact on supporting and raising awareness about multicultural refugee communities in Orange County.
Prior to founding Tiyya, Owliya volunteered in assisting newcomers with the challenging process of resettlement for over a decade.