Refugee mum who fled Syria without a penny to her name becomes top cheesemaker

Many of us would struggle to move to a new place, but Syrian Razan Alsous has thrived in one of the hardest situations a person can go through.

After fleeing civil war in Syria with her husband Raghid and three children, Razan was forced to start again, and has become an award-winning cheesemaker after settling in Yorkshire.

Just like some of the five million Syrians forced to flee the bitter conflict, the Alsous family settled in Yorkshire, arriving with no money and only a few of their essential belongings.

Although they hadn’t wanted to leave their homeland, the detonation of a car bomb outside Raghid’s office was the final straw.

Razan, who had been working full-time marketing laboratory equipment, had to leave behind most of her belongings – and their former middle-class lifestyle and status – and say goodbye to their loved ones in order to protect the children.

After leaving Damascus in 2012, the family ended up in Huddersfield, with five of them sharing a single room in Razan’s brother-in-law’s home.

Nearly everything they needed, from clothes to toys, came from charity shops.

Although Razan had a degree in pharmacology, finding work in West Yorkshire proved very difficult, so she decided to start her own business.

In 2019 she recalled: ‘Initially I began searching for a job but despite having a pharmacy degree and a scientific background my lack of references and work history in the UK made it extremely difficult.

‘After some time I started to look at other options.

‘I have three children and wanted so badly to build a bright future for them so I started to think what was around me – the expertise I could tap into, the sources of support and other opportunities available to me.’

Eventually, she had a brainwave. Back in Syria, the family would eat halloumi for breakfast but in the UK she struggled to find a good brand.

‘As I couldn’t find a great tasting quality squeaky cheese anywhere in the supermarkets or local independent farm shops I then had a brainwave: why not create a business and make myself Syrian cheese from fresh high-quality British milk?

‘And so started our journey- with an idea and a start-up loan of just £2,500 from the local Enterprise Agency.

‘We had to adapt the equipment we bought and then finally got the approval to start manufacturing cheese in June 2014.

‘After just four months of production, we won the World Cheese Award Bronze Prize 2014/15.’

Her company, Yorkshire Dama Cheese, began in Linthwaite, in Huddersfield’s Colne Valley, but is now based in Sowerby Bridge after it expanded.

Since then, the cheeses have won multiple awards, and Razan has met many influential people, including Hollywood star Cate Blanchett who interviewed her as part of her role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations’ Refugee Agency – otherwise known as the UNHCR.

The Sowerby Bridge factory produces a range of halloumi-style cheese which are branded as ‘Yorkshire squeaky cheese’ because only producers in Cyprus can use the name ‘halloumi’.

The range of products has steadily expanded to including sheep’s milk yoghurt, Yorkshire Dama butter, matured yoghurt balls, Yorkshire Dama ricotta, and Yorkshire Dama Labneh (spreadable yoghurt).

Razan’s message to people thinking about setting up in business is to go and get some advice from people who can help.

‘My motto is that nothing is impossible, especially when there are people out there who can help you.’

And she says Yorkshire is now her home.

‘The locals are wonderful. They have made us all so welcome, I never feel I am away from home. I am proud to live here and I would like to stay here permanently.’

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