An ice cream machine and some improvisation with barbecue grills helped a Syrian refugee couple to launch a now-thriving business making halloumi in the unlikely setting of the Yorkshire Dales.
Razan Al-Sous and her husband Raghid Sandouk fled Syria to start a new life in Yorkshire, leaving behind their dream of setting up their own pharmaceutical company but opening up a new entrepreneurial life in the city of Huddersfield.
With the simple idea of making halloumi-style cheese from cows' milk and launching a best-selling range of Arabian flavoured cheeses, the innovative pair have won more than 30 awards for their product and gained royal approval from Princess Anne.
“I learnt to make cheese from the internet. The key is to finding a good source of production and turning it into a successful product,” Ms Al-Sous, 37, who once studied in Abu Dhabi, told The National.
“My husband brought an old ice cream machine and changed it from cooling milk to heating it. It was not efficient but it did the job.
“Instead of buying £200 ($275) cheese cutters we used £20 barbecue grills. We started with simple things and just tried to work hard. We knew we needed to live and make a future for our children.
“A number of times we thought about falling down and giving up but we pushed each other on.”
Factory bombing triggered the family’s decision to leave
“Damascus started to be horrible,” the 55-year-old said. “We would hear shouting and explosions all the time and stories of people’s children being kidnapped. My office was next to the Ministry of Petroleum and it was a target for the opposition.
“One day I was late for work due to an explosion in the city, when I arrived the place where I would have parked my car was blown up. We had three young children and we had to do what was best for them.”
When they arrived in Yorkshire, Mr Sandouk’s brother let them run his chicken food outlet and it was there the first Yorkshire Dama Squeaky Cheese was created.
Now they have nine flavours in their range, from plain and chilli to black onion seed, rosemary and mint.
The couple recently won their latest award, for their black pepper squeaky cheese.
“It was my idea, it reminds me of Syria,” Mr Sandouk said. “It’s my favourite.”
“The black onion one is also one of our best sellers.
“When we thought about our business name we thought it had to be related to Yorkshire but we also did not want our children to forget where they are originally from, so Dama.”
UK’s textile history led to the family settling in Yorkshire
The family chose to settle in Yorkshire after listening to the stories of Mr Sandouk’s grandfather, who often travelled from Jordan and Syria to buy textiles from Huddersfield.
“At the time it was number one in the world due to the quality,” he said.
“So when we took the decision to leave, we came to Yorkshire as we knew it to be friendly because of all the things my grandfather had told us.
“My brother came first and when we arrived he let us run his chicken shop and it is where we first started making the cheese. The milk here tastes gorgeous, for people who come from outside the country they can distinguish the taste and quality of the milk in Yorkshire. We spotted a gap in the market and decided to make it.”
Princess Anne took cheese away for the queen
In 2017 the couple expanded to new premises and were given a royal seal of approval when Princess Anne officially opened their factory in Sowerby Bridge.
Now the couple have been invited to Buckingham Palace.
“The Princess Royal eats our cheese and we sent some back with her for the queen,” Ms Al-Sous said.
“I think she must have talked about us because we have been invited to the Buckingham Palace garden party. It has been a really positive moment for us after everything we have worked for.”
Life has still been challenging for them, last year their business was devastated by floods caused by Storm Ciara and they had to start from scratch again.
“It flooded our premises and destroyed our equipment,” Ms Al-Sous said.
“It was really devastating. It just reminded us of how we lost everything in Syria. It was really heartbreaking and we just needed to accept the reality and we got to work cleaning everything up.
“Then a month later we had the national lockdown. We kept saying to ourselves 'what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger'.”
During the pandemic, the couple heard about the plight of the milk famers having to throw away their produce.
It led to the company working with the famers and developing a new range of sheep and goats' milk.
This month they won yet another award for their Middle Eastern style cheese, Nabulsi, which contains black onion seeds and has now become a bestseller in the UK.
“The pandemic has affected us, life is not rosy. Before the pandemic we were producing three times the amount of cheese,” Ms Al-Sous said.
“But coming from Syria with no money you realise money is not everything. I hold all my culture and remember the things that I have learnt from before and it gave me the idea of making a Middle Eastern flavour and to launch an Arabic range. It’s now a bestseller and it means the world to us that we can share a little piece of home with our customers.
“The key to success is accepting change. We manage our success by the amount of times we have fallen down and got back up again and we will continue to do so.”