That’s Dama fine cheese

A family who fled to Yorkshire with no money and few possessions have established a multiple award-winning cheese business.

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Razan Alsous visibly shudders when asked to think back almost six years to the dreadful last days she and her family spent in Syria. It was sweltering high summer, and the first week of Ramadan. One of their friends had just been abducted, and when his family received a phone call from the kidnappers demanding a $100,000 ransom he was heard screaming in the background as they tortured him. Meanwhile, out on the streets the many different groups of gunmen wore no uniforms, so no one could tell them apart or knew whose side to support if they were stopped and questioned.

Then came the day of decision. “I would never forget it,” Razan shakes her head. “On 26 July 2012 there was an explosion, a car bomb at my husband’s office in Damascus. It had become a target because the company imported laboratory equipment from the UK. That was enough to get you killed. Of course, there had been many other explosions but they were always some distance away. This time we felt the war had finally come to our door. We left the country two days later.”

“Squeaky cheese is what everyone here calls halloumi so we’ve gone with that description.”

The tale of how Razan and husband Raghid escaped from war-torn Syria with their three small children is something the couple are now asked to recount again and again, because what came next has made their story one of the most extraordinary to emerge from a conflict that has killed over 500,000 Syrians since 2010, created 6.5 million displaced people inside the country, and sent more than 5.6 million refugees flooding across Europe. It continues to dominate news bulletins following the chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma this month.

Their savings had been rendered worthless by rampant inflation, so the couple borrowed money to buy plane tickets to London via Beirut, and packed two suitcases, which contained mostly toys for their 10-month-old son and daughters aged two and three. “When kids have their toys they at least feel like they’re still at home,” says Razan. “That was our main desire for them.”

If there is a lucky aspect to their story it is that they both had UK visas, which were issued for Raghid’s business trips. And on arrival in London they immediately headed north to stay with Raghid’s uncle, who had lived in Huddersfield since the 1980s. Yorkshire had another appeal, too. His grandfather had imported textiles from the area’s wool mills and established contacts there. They had the beginnings of a network that could offer help.

Razan hoped to find a job using her pharmacy degree but her then-poor English and lack of references made it impossible. With Raghid unable to work until his residency permit was approved, she set about trying to find a way to earn a living to feed the family.

“We had noticed how wonderful the milk was here,” Razan says. “And we thought, why not make cheese? So the job centre referred me to an adviser who helped me put together a business plan and get a loan. In our situation, the maximum on offer was £2,500.”

Raghid’s brother had been running a fried chicken takeaway in the nearby village of Linthwaite. It had just closed, and the kitchen was where Razan set about making the cheese that is the national breakfast dish of Syria. Halloumi is salty and white with a rubbery texture, and a high melting point, which allows it to be fried or grilled. In recent decades it has become popular with Britons who have holidayed in Cyprus – where it was first eaten more than 1,000 years ago – and in Turkey. It is now the most popular cheese across the Middle East.

“I have a strong microbiological background and quickly understood the cheese-making process,” Razan says. “We started off with very basic equipment, just two large pots on a cooker, but succeeded in getting a halloumi that we liked to eat ourselves. We tested it on our family and friends and they loved it too.”

And so what they decided to call Yorkshire Dama cheese was born, Dama being short for Damascus. After four months they were so confident about the quality of their product that they decided to enter it in the World Cheese Awards at London’s huge Olympia exhibition hall. “It was very funny,” recalls Razan. “We went there with two small pieces of plain halloumi and they were up against 3,250 samples of cheese from around the world. Yet they gave us the bronze award. Incredible.”

That was the turning point. “From there everything started to be different. We began to be recognised by the media. But there were still difficulties. Our machinery was a problem and so we asked for crowdfunding of £3,000. We needed a trailer and vacuum packer as well but there was only enough for a down payment. We just had to keep on working and working, often from seven in the morning to one the following morning, and keep putting the money back into the business.”

The media exposure drew Razan to the attention of Yorkshire-born TV chef James Martin, who invited her onto his Home Comforts series. There was another appearance on the Channel 4 cooking show My Kitchen Rules presented by Prue Leith and Michael Caines.

With the publicity came yet more accolades. Razan came sixth in the Yorkshire Entrepreneur of the Year awards, and in 2016 she was selected as one of the UK’s representatives for International Women’s Day. The same year she went back to the World Cheese Awards at Olympia, this time walking off with the gold prize.

Her range has expanded to include cheeses flavoured with chilli, with mint and with rosemary, as well as what she believes is the world’s only smoked halloumi – except that she is not allowed to call it halloumi since Cyprus is currently claiming a protected designation of origin status for any cheese carrying that name, just as Greece did with feta. Initially, Razan used the name halloum! (exclamation mark intentional) but even that was a potential infringement, so now her packaging uses the words Squeaky Cheese. “It is what everyone here seems to call halloumi anyway,” she laughs. “So we’ve gone with that description.”

Early last year the business had outgrown the kitchen at the fried chicken takeaway and moved north of the M62 to a small factory just off the main street of Sowerby Bridge in Calderdale. By then, Razan’s reputation had grown to such an extent that the Princess Royal agreed to perform the official opening. The premises are five times the size of the takeaway’s kitchen, and have allowed more products to be made, including ricotta cheese and a spreadable yoghurt called labneh, for which there’s a growing demand thanks to the increasing number of books on Middle Eastern food.

In the factory’s office, the presence of children’s toys and bicycles indicate that Razan’s children are still central to her day-to-day life despite the demands of the business. The couple’s close family have also now managed to join them in Yorkshire, including Razan’s parents, sister and brother. “That’s a relief,” she says. “I get so sad when I see the news from Syria. I still have lots of aunties, uncles and cousins there. But we feel we now belong here in Yorkshire.”

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