When Razan Alsous and her family came to the UK as migrants in 2014, they didn't know what they would do for work in their new homes. Four years later, they own one of the fastest-growing cheese companies in the UK.
It seems that there are more cows than people in Yorkshire. Even in winter, the grass they feed on remains emerald green - thanks to the perennial rain in Britain. Throughout the UK, people know this region for its smooth and creamy milk and outstanding quality dairy products, including the world-famous Wensleydale.
In recent years, there's been an addition to the long list of leading cheeses that originate from this area: The Dama Yorkshire Cheese Company, founded in 2014, has quickly risen to become one of the foremost purveyors of Syrian-style halloumi cheese in the country.
Offering five different kinds of "Squeaky Cheese," the small business with about 7 employees is now reaching all corners of the UK, having recently signed a contract with Morrison's, one of Britain's major supermarket chains.
Razan Alsous is the mastermind behind this small-but-mighty dairy empire. She and her family came to the UK as refugees in 2014, fleeing the civil war in Syria. Alsous and her family made Yorkshire their home. At first, they didn't know what they were going to do.
"We lost everything in Syria and came to the UK with nothing but a few suitcases with clothes. We hardly knew anyone here but felt that we really had to do something. And that's how the cheese came about," she tells InfoMigrants.
Award-winning cheese from Yorkshire
Razan Alsous is proud of her success: her office is filled with cheese awards from around the world. Four months after establishing her business in 2014, her cheese won the bronze award at the World Cheese Awards. The next year, the Dama Yorkshire Cheese Company scored gold at the same event.
The past few years have been characterized by exponential growth and expansion for the migrant from Syria and her booming business. In addition to the "Squeaky Cheese" Razan Alsous' business is about to expand into offering labneh as well, which is a strained yogurt from the Middle East, as well as yogurt balls. But Alsous doesn't let her accomplishments go to her head. She speaks candidly about each step along the way of her entrepreneurial journey:
"I learned how to make cheese on the internet. It started as an experiment in my kitchen. But my education helped as well. I studied pharmacy and worked in a laboratory at a medical institute before, so I know about hygiene and safety issues. The rest is just hard work," Alsous explains.
Dairy replaces fried chicken
The next step on her journey to entrepreneurship was to seek advice from a mentor organized by the job center to put together a business plan, followed by a small start-up loan of £2,500 to get the business going in 2014.
"Having a mentor was great. There were lots of ups and downs. I often wondered what I was doing, where I was going with all this but the advice from my mentor really helped me focus. And the small loan was enough for us to start," Razan Alsous tells InfoMigrants.
Her first kitchen was in a former fried chicken restaurant owned by a friend. Having access to a commercial kitchen was not just helpful to try out new recipes for halloumi cheese, but is legally necessary for any company that deals with dairy. She bought an industrial ice-cream maker, which her husband Raghid, an electronic engineer, adapted from cooling milk to actually warming milk.
"The UK is the largest consumer of halloumi cheese in Europe after Cyprus. It has become really trendy here. And back in Syria, we eat halloumi cheese every day for breakfast. We love it. So it feels like we were meant to go into this business when we came here," Razan Alsous says confidently.
"This country needs halloumi," her husband Raghid Alsous adds.
Royal stamp of approval
Initially, the cheese products were only sold at farm shops and local markets. But three years later, the success of the Dama Yorkshire Cheese Company even reached royal circles: Anne, the Princess Royal, paid a visit to Yorkshire's newest cheesemakers to see for herself how refugees can transform their hardships into opportunities.
"At first I was very nervous about the visit," Razan Alsous admits, "But she was so natural and knew so much about cheese. And the visit wasn't formal at all. It was actually almost like a family atmosphere.
"You can even see her smile on the picture."
Fleeing the war in Syria
Razan Alsous speaks about her journey as an entrepreneur in a matter-of-fact way; she wants to be transparent about her success while inspiring others as well. However, she also wants people to understand where she and her family came from. She doesn't hold back when it comes to discussing what circumstances she and her family escaped:
"The war was horrible. I honestly hope that no one experiences war like we did. You can cope with the lack of electricity by using candles for light. You can cope with water cuts by saving water. You can cope with a lack of food by stocking dried vegetables to soak and cook. But the lack of safety is what is really not easy to cope with," Alsous tells InfoMigrants.
"We refused to leave Syria for a long time – until one day there was an explosion next door to my husband's office. That really hit us. We realized that we couldn't keep waiting around until somebody in our family was actually hurt. That's when we decided to leave Syria."
Because of Raghid Alsous' work in Syria, the family already had visas to travel to the UK. Two days after the fateful explosion, Razan and Raghid Alsous left Syria with their three children to start a new life in the UK. Razan Alsous says it was the sensible thing to do: "We had this opportunity to escape. And so we took it."
Where is home?
Building a new life in the UK wasn't easy. Razan and Raghid Alsous had to work practically non-stop to reach their current level of success. They haven't had time to rest, let alone travel. But they are hoping to see their home in Syria again one day, if only for a visit:
"This is life: it can make you move from one place to another. You don't know how it happens but it happens. This is where we are now, but Syria is where we come from," Raghid Alsous tells InfoMigrants.
Razan Alsous admits that the past few years have been rewarding and difficult at the same time: "We live here now. We want to live here and belong to this community. Everyone can learn to cope in another country. But home is home."