Syrian refugees' business churns out cheeses approved by Princess Anne

Razan Alsous and her husband fled civil war in 2012 before building a new life and business in the English countryside with royal approval

Razan Alsous and her husband Raghid Sandouk. Photo: Daniel Oxtoby
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Leaving home was never an option for Syrian entrepreneur Razan Alsous.

But in 2012 when a car bomb exploded outside her husband Raghid Sandouk's office in Damascus, the couple had to make the difficult decision to flee the civil war.

“I got married in Syria in 2008. I have two daughters and one boy, and I've always envisioned our home to be the best for them to play, to grow up in,” Alsous tells The National.

“That was a really difficult time for my husband and our family. We endured the early days of the war. No electricity, no water, that's fine. But when you go outside your house and you don't know if you're going to make it back alive, that's when we decided we had to make a move.

“I've got children, and I'm responsible for their future.”

Alsous and her family found a second home in Huddersfield, a town in north England's Yorkshire.

Leaving everything behind, including a thriving laboratory supplies business in their home country, the family scrambled to rebuild their lives and soon found success with a cheese business.

“I never made cheese in my life, but we noticed how great the quality of milk is in the UK,” says Alsous.

This, as well as her family's craving for good halloumi cheese, a staple in the Middle East, pushed her to get into the cheese-making business.

“It was not easy, but when you are in a situation where you are forced to change your life, you need to always think ahead,” says Alsous.

Using her background in pharmacology, and her ultimate goal to give her family a stable life, Alsous experimented with different recipes. In 2014, she was awarded with a permit from food regulators, as well as a grant of £2,500 ($3,118) to start Yorkshire Dama Cheese.

Her husband, Sandouk, used his background as an electronic engineer to repurpose an old ice-cream machine so they could start producing cheese. They cleared a fried chicken shop and used it as the base of their small operations, which at the time could only process 300 litres of milk at a time.

“We used to go to local shops and groceries in our area to market our own products,” Alsous recalls.

Only four months into the business, Alsous snapped a bronze prize at the World Cheese Awards, which was a welcome reminder that she was “on the right track”. The company eventually moved to a bigger industrial unit in Halifax, and one of her first visitors to the factory was Princess Anne in 2017.

“We got a message from the royal office saying the princess would love to visit and look at what we have done,” says Alsous.

Alsous prepared a salad with her halloumi cheese for the royal and also served her Middle Eastern fare with a twist, including a cheese baklava and milk pudding with lavender.

“It was really something to be proud of, and the princess was really nice,” she recalls. “She sent us a letter after the visit, which I still have now, and I love showing it to people because it motivates me.”

Yorkshire Dama Cheese's factory in Halifax can now process up to 1,500 litres of milk. Brand-new equipment, as well as a proprietary semi-automated production line, have been installed.

Products include halloumi, which is branded as "squeaky cheese", are available in different flavours. The brand also sells labneh, yoghurt balls, butter ghee and, more recently, ricotta cheese, now stocked in major supermarkets across the UK.

Alsous says she never thought she would be able to grow her business to this scale as her only focus “was for my family to have a stable source of income”.

Earlier this year, she participated in Dubai's Gulfood trade event, where she met with potential distributors in the UAE. There are now discussions about her brand's expansion to the Middle East.

“This is the power of human experiences, and belief. If we thought that it was impossible to make a cheese factory out of nothing, we wouldn't have made it," she says.

Updated: May 09, 2023, 3:30 PM