How I fled Syria and brought Halloumi cheese to Yorkshire

Razan Alsous of Yorkshire Dama Cheese  at Linthwaite.

Razan Alsous of Yorkshire Dama Cheese at Linthwaite.

  • Razan Alsous fled war-torn Syria with her husband and children to start a new life in Yorkshire. Just a few years later she is behind an award-winning food business. Catherine Scott meets her. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
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When Razan Alsous arrived in Huddersfield four years ago after fleeing the civil war in Syria she had nothing but the contents of her suitcase. Razan, her three young children and husband Raghid Sandouk were forced to abandon their comfortable lives in Damascus, leaving everything behind.

“It was a very hard decision,” she says. “I had graduated from medical school and was studying a pharmacy degree and Raghid was an electronics engineer representing British companies supplying laboratory equipment to Syria. We had been married just four years and had three small children – our son was just 10 months old and the two girls were two and three. We had a lovely home and a bright future. Things had just started to become more open-minded. Syria was stable and going forward.”

Yorkshire Haloumi cheese at Yorkshire Dama Cheese  at Linthwaite.

Yorkshire Haloumi cheese at Yorkshire Dama Cheese at Linthwaite.

But when civil war broke out the family’s lives were changed forever. “Damascenes are historically a nation of traders. We are not political. But once the war broke out everything changed. Things started to become scarce. My eldest daughter is lactose-intolerant and we struggled to get soya milk for her and nappies for the baby, but we had never thought of leaving.

“But soon we no longer felt safe, especially if you had a connection with the UK. We lived about 20 miles outside of Damascus but every time you went into the city you could be stopped and asked for your ID. At that time Isis wasn’t in existence and there were so many different factions. You could be killed or kidnapped just for knowing the wrong people.”

But it was when there was an explosion at Raghid’s offices that the family realised they had to flee, leaving Razan’s mother and brother behind, although they have since been reunited in Yorkshire.

“We really didn’t want to leave but the explosion was a message to us to get out of Syria while we could. We could only take with us what we could each carry in a suitcase, the rest we had to leave behind.”

The collapse in the Syrian pound meant that the family was left with virtually nothing. They sought refuge with Raghid’s brother who had lived in Huddersfield for more than 30 years.

“We had visited the UK before and we both spoke English, but the children didn’t,” says Razan. “It was very strange for them. They didn’t understand why their cousins talked ‘funny’.”

While the family felt welcomed by the local community, for Razan it was very difficult. “I was looking after my 84-year-old mother-in-law and my three young children. I had looked into trying to complete my pharmacy degree but all the British universities I approached said I would have to start again. It was hard as I didn’t know anyone really. I had no friends and so I would take the children to play areas and when they started school so that I could meet people.”

Razan’s UK residency came through quite quickly but it took a further two years for Raghid’s to be approved, during which time he was unable to work. It left Razan having to come up with ideas for how she could support her husband, Kareen, now five, Yara, seven, and Angie, eight.

“I went to the Job Centre and they looked at my CV and said I was more qualified than they were,” says Razan, now 33. She did some translation work but it was not regular enough to support her family. She decided that the best course of action was to set up her own business.

“I spent a while thinking about what I could do, what I liked doing and what there was a need for. I believe that if you do something you enjoy then you will make a success of it. I loved food and cooking so I started to look at things I could make.”

Initially she thought of making finger food but eventually came up with the idea of making Syrian cheese. “In Syria we have halloumi for breakfast and I really struggled to get something of the quality we were used to in the UK,” says Razan. “So I thought I would try to make some, initially just for my own family. I love the milk in Yorkshire and decided to try to make it with local cow’s milk rather than sheep or goat that it is often made from in Cyprus.”

There was only one problem – Razan had no idea how to make cheese. “I spent a lot of time trying to find out information about cheesemaking and halloumi, in particular, both in English and in Arabic. There really wasn’t that much information out there. I even contacted universities in America and England. In the end, I realised that most cheese was made the same way initially, it was just what you did to it in the later stages that made it different.”

So she set about making cheese in her kitchen at home. She tried it out on family and friends and it was a huge hit. It made her realise that she could have the makings of a business and she spent the next 18 months developing her cheese and her business plan.

“But we had nothing,” she recalls. Luckily, Raghid’s brother-in-law had a unit on Manchester Road in Linthwaite which had been a fried chicken takeaway and so had an industrial kitchen. Razan managed to get an enterprise loan of £2,500 and so, armed with her homemade recipe, two large pots and a hob, Yorkshire Dama Cheese was born.

“I wanted it to be Yorkshire as I am passionate about the county and how we have been accepted and made to feel we belong,” she says. “But I am also passionate about Damascus, I really miss it and so Dama is short for Damascus.”

Razan wanted to call her product Yorkshire Halloumi, but Cyprus is trying to trademark the cheese, similar to the way that Greece has done with feta. “Halloumi has its origins in the Middle East so I don’t see how Cyprus can put a trademark on it,” she says.

However, she called her squeaky cheese Yorkshire Haloum! to be on the safe side, although she has no intention of being bullied by the Cypriot authorities.

Just two days after she produced her first batch, Razan decided to jump in at the deep end and take it to the Harrogate Fine Food Show. “People really liked it, they kept saying: ‘How long have you been in business?’ I daren’t say it had only been two days.”

She realised that she needed to get some accreditation for her new cheese and fledgling business and so decided to enter it into the 2014 World Cheese Awards. “We went along with two blocks of halloumi and there were more than 2,000 entries laid out on tables.” But she needn’t have worried – her cheese received a coveted bronze award.

“After that everything changed,” Razan says. The then Prime Minister David Cameron selected her as a key figurehead for International Women’s Day in 2015, the same year that her halloumi received a gold award at the World Cheese Awards. She was then approached to be filmed with James Martin as part of his Home Comforts series screened on the BBC earlier this year.

And she has just been back on television with her brother Reda taking part in My Kitchen Rules, the Channel 4 cooking show with Prue Leith and Michael Caines. “I am always looking for new things to do. I could never do the same thing day in, day out,” Razan adds.

Yorkshire Dama has gone from strength to strength too thanks to Razan’s hard work and the support of Raghid. “Initially we were working from 7am to 1am the following morning and any money we made went straight back into the business,” says Razan. “That has enabled us to buy bigger machines and also to do our own packaging and labelling.”

The couple started selling at farmers’ markets and food fairs, and now have a number of distributors which means Yorkshire Haloum! can be found in farm shops and delis across Yorkshire and up into Scotland as well as online, although Razan would love to see it on sale in the major supermarkets. “We are talking to Booths at the moment but it would be lovely to see our cheese nationwide.”

Demand for their cheese means that Razan and Raghid have had to look for bigger premises. “At the moment we can only make cheese two or three time a week. The move will allow us to make cheese every day,” says Raghid.

“We really wanted to keep our business in Huddersfield. But rents were too high for the size of property we needed so we have just signed a contract with a unit in Sowerby Bridge which is five times the size we have here. We just hope there are no more floods as it is on the river.”

The new facility should be open before Christmas and will also see more staff being recruited to Yorkshire Dama Cheese as demand for its growing product range increases.

There are now three varieties of her Haloum! – original, chilli and mint. Earlier this month the Haloum! with chilli was voted best Yorkshire cheese at the Yorkshire Post/Deliciously Yorkshire Taste Awards 2016.

“It was so fantastic to have one of our cheeses voted the best cheese in Yorkshire,” says Razan. “We have been runner-up before and to win was amazing. We have such a lot of support from Deliciouslyorkshire and Judy Bell in particular.”

Judy Bell is founder of Shepherd’s Purse Cheese in North Yorkshire and chairman of Deliciouslyorkshire. “I thought as we were in competition she might have a problem but Judy and the people at Wensleydale Creamery have been so supportive. They say our cheese completes the family of cheeses made in Yorkshire,” adds Razan.

Never one to sit still, Razan has developed a Yorkshire Labneh, a spreadable yoghurt which is a healthy replacement for cream cheese as it has no additives and is very low in fat. “It is a really healthy option. It is great for old and young. It is proving very popular,” says Razan. “I really love the product development side of the business and I have big plans for Yorkshire Dama Cheese.

“I am very sad when I see what is happening at home, but we have had nothing but support and love from the people of Yorkshire. I really feel that we now belong.”

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