THE SYRIAN REFUGEES SHAPING BRITISH FOOD
Reader's Digest UK|November 2020
Since the start of the civil war in 2011, 5.6 million people have fled Syria to escape its bitter conflict. A fraction of those have built new lives in Britain. But getting to safety is just one of many challenges facing refugees settling in the UK—finding work isn’t easy, either. For these three resourceful people, setting up their own businesses in the food industry proved to be the best option, each one bringing something new to Britain. These are their remarkable stories
Joey Tyson

RAZAN ALSOUS, 37: YORKSHIRE DAMA CHEESE

Since launching Yorkshire Dama Cheese, Razan Alsous has won 22 awards for the quality of her cheese. Any way you slice it, that’s impressive. Even more so when you consider this: Razan had never made cheese before starting her business in 2014.

In that short time, Razan can count a visit from Princess Anne, being interviewed by Cate Blanchett for the UNHCR, and an appearance on BBC’s Countryfile among the businesses’ many achievements. Though there’s been plenty of success, it has come at a tremendous cost.

Razan arrived in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, in 2012, with her husband, Raghid, 55, and three young children. They had left almost everything in Syria, as the country plunged deeper into a vicious civil war. Despite having a degree in pharmacology, a lack of references and British work experience made finding a job difficult. For well over a year Razan searched, desperate to build a new life for her family, until one day, a tiny piece of her Syrian culture clicked into place, in Yorkshire.

“We used to buy it from the supermarket, but we didn’t love the taste or the texture because halloumi here uses much more powdered milk than fresh,” she says, recalling a trip to the supermarket to buy halloumi, a staple breakfast food in Syria.

“I noticed how wonderful the milk in Yorkshire is. For people living here, you might not find it unique, but for people from overseas, the taste is absolutely different to other milk,” Razan says. “All this information clicked in my head— why can’t I do this [make cheese] for a business using British milk?”

With a grant of £2,500 from the West Yorkshire Enterprise Agency, Razan was able to rent a small shop in Sowerby Bridge, Halifax, and buy the basic equipment she needed to get started. Raghid, with his engineering expertise and knowledge of the food industry, adapted the machinery so it would meet their needs. “We started making cheese with equipment that wasn’t made to make cheese,” she says.

Today, Razan sells her “squeaky cheese” (the name “halloumi” is trademarked as a designated Cypriot product) in shops all over Yorkshire, Scotland and the south of England, as well as online. Although the pandemic has hindered production, Yorkshire Dama Cheese is finding its feet again. Having been through so much already, Razan is used to working in a crisis.

“Life is always up and down. Maybe because we have experienced a different pandemic—leaving our country, our home, leaving our history. We had to leave everything behind and come here. It helped us to understand life better and absorb problems,” says Razan.

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