After escaping war in Syria… A refugee heads the Yorkshire Dama Cheese Company in UK

Back in October 2014, Razan Alsous was looking for halloumi cheese in the fridge of her local grocery store in West Yorkshire. But she could not find the salty delicacy so evocative for her.
“Halloumi is a staple food in Syria,” Alsous, a 33 year-old refugee from Damascus, told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “We mainly have it for breakfast, with bread and olives.”

After failing to find the cheese, usually imported from Cyprus, Alsous had her lightbulb moment. “It was then that the click happened,” Alsous said. “We are in Yorkshire where the milk is wonderful. Why not make halloumi here?”

Today, Alsous heads the Yorkshire Dama Cheese Company, a successful business producing halloumi in the heart of Yorkshire. Her dairy treats are now sold around the country.

“When we came here, it was a matter of thriving. We had to prove ourselves,” said Alsous, who sought asylum with her husband and three children in the UK at the end of 2012. They had lost their family business in an explosion in Damascus. “We lost a lot in Syria, so there was no time to sit back and regret the past. As soon as I got my asylum accepted, I had to do something.”

Finding paid employment is crucial for refugees, offering them dignity and a path to independence. It also allows them to integrate swiftly into their new society and start making a contribution.
Many refugees face significant hurdles in finding work. First, they must master the language which without targeted, dedicated support, takes time. Then they need their qualifications to be recognised or to have access to new training opportunities.

Any employers keen to hire refugees must be able to find them, understand their backgrounds and training needs, and be assured that hiring them is in line with regulations. In all of these areas, there are gaps to be filled by a combination of government support and targeted assistance from non-government organizations and private companies.

Alsous’ project was brought to life thanks to a GBP2,500 (US$3,500) government-backed loan given to her by the West Yorkshire Enterprise Agency, an initiative supporting start-up businesses in the area.

She started producing halloumi in a small, rented shop in Halifax, West Yorkshire. “I had never produced cheese before, I was a pharmacist in Syria,” Alsous said. “I used an online recipe and bought second-hand catering equipment.”

There were a lot of challenges operating in a foreign environment. But the local community showed real support. “When people knew I was coming from another country and establishing a business, they encouraged me more and more,” she said. “They were happy that I was bringing in something new, something different.”

Alsous’ business grew steadily; she started producing five types of halloumi including new flavors like chili, rosemary and smoked. She could not call her cheese “Halloumi” as the cheese is protected as a designated Cypriot product. “I thought, ‘why not give it a British name and call it ‘Squeaky’ as most people in the UK know Halloumi as ‘squeaky cheese’,” she said.

By 2016, Yorkshire Dama’s Squeaky Cheese was distributed around Yorkshire and recognised for its taste.

“She was bringing great cheese and showing us that you can start with nothing and make something out of it,” said Helen Bradley, Alsous’ assistant manager. “She’s a real inspiration.”

Bradley joined Alsous in January 2017 after she moved her production operation to a bigger facility employing seven workers, including some refugees. Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth, inaugurated the new factory last year in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire. Alsous proudly hangs a picture from that day in her office.

“It felt good to be recognised for the hard work I had put into this,” she said.

Squeaky Cheese has won 17 food awards in less than three years, including best cheese in Yorkshire two years in succession.

Alsous has also started producing spreadable yoghourt, known in the Middle East as “labneh.” Her products are sold in farmers’ markets and deli shops in Yorkshire, Scotland and Cornwall. She plans to expand her UK distribution and start exporting to other countries.

Alsous stressed that the support she had received in Yorkshire helped her to succeed. The UK has given her a lifeline and a home, and she’s grateful for both.

“In my company’s name, I included my homeland – that is Dama, for Damascus – but I now count this as my home. So when people ask me where I am from, I say, ‘I am from Yorkshire’.”
(UNHCR)