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Meet the Syrian refugees shaking up the British halloumi industry

April 4, 2022 at 4:26 pm

Raghid and Ranza Sandouk []

Raghid Sandouk escaped from his home in Damascus and brought his wife and three children to safety in Britain. “We never thought of living in the UK,” he told me. “Leaving was not an easy decision to make.” However, a car bomb outside his office left him with little choice.

Now settled in Huddersfield in the north of England, Raghid, 58, and his wife Razan Alsous, 38, have made a new life for themselves as award-winning cheesemakers. Neither are from a cheese-making background. Raghid owned his own company in Syria supplying quality control equipment to the pharmaceutical industry; Raza was studying pharmacology at Damascus University. Finding work in West Yorkshire proved difficult, though, due to a lack of documentation and references, so they decided to start their own business.

As more Syrian refugees arrive in Britain, the popularity of Syrian food continues to grow in areas with sizable refugee and immigrant communities, Yorkshire included. A number of restaurants and bakeries have opened in Scotland, for example, where nearly a fifth of Syrian refugees have settled since coming to Britain.

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“I must admit that the company — Yorkshire Dama Cheese — was my wife’s idea,” said Raghid. “Halloumi is a very popular type of cheese. It is one of our daily dishes in Syria, even for breakfast. Labneh — “spreadable yoghurt” — and cheese are the top two items to be put on the table.”

He pointed out that halloumi can be eaten as it is or roasted or grilled. “Normally, we have it with fruits, like watermelon in the summer, whereas in winter we have it with a cup of tea. But it is a must on the table.”

Clearly a family favourite and traditional breakfast staple, Razan was stumped when she failed to find halloumi in Yorkshire, where it is a seasonal product. It was late autumn and she was told that it wouldn’t be back on the shelves until May. It was there, in the dairy aisle, that the idea of her own company came to her.

“It was very strange to us that cheese would run out in Britain because good quality milk and raw materials are available,” said Raghid. “And when Razan made some of her own halloumi for the family that day, we realised the difference in taste compared with the selection available in the supermarkets that are imported from different countries. Razan’s tasted much better; it tasted like back home in Syria.”

Delighted by the response to her home-made halloumi, Razan realised that there was a gap in the market. Her husband also noted the abundant fresh milk available in Britain, which he says has a distinctive taste compared with milk overseas. “The milk here is unique so it just clicked in my head: why not make cheese as a business using British milk?”

With a grant of £2,500 from the West Yorkshire Enterprise Agency, the couple rented a small shop in Sowerby Bridge, just outside Halifax, and bought the basic equipment they needed to launch Yorkshire Dama Cheese in 2014. Using his engineering expertise and knowledge of the food industry, Raghid adapted the equipment to meet their needs.

“A habit amongst Middle Easterners is that they always overwhelm themselves with just thinking about the difficulties instead of starting small to solve the problems,” he explained. “We found that the cost of the machine to boil the milk was almost £50,000, so I decided to start with 200 litres of milk and converted an old ice cream machine into a cheese machine. I also bought a second-hand pasta boiler and made the press and mould. It was a slow and laborious process, but using the simple tools enabled us to start and make the first halloumi at home.”

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A significant part of their business journey included taking part in the British television show “Dragons’ Den” in 2020. They were seeking funds to upgrade their equipment and offered a ten per cent share in the business in exchange for an investment of £100,000 but they were rejected by the panel of multimillionaire entrepreneurs. They said that the couple had overvalued their company and that the Syrian family would struggle to sell their product due to not being permitted to brand their cheese as halloumi under trademark rules in place to protect the halloumi industry in Cyprus.

Halloumi, the couple point out, is not a subject you can discuss in five minutes in a TV studio. “My wife and I were under pressure. It was very stressful. Ideally, you need a lot of time because it’s not like, say, regular cheddar cheese.”

The panel asked why they need millions of pounds to make cheese. Why didn’t they just arrange sub-contracts? “The experience was very valuable, but halloumi does need special equipment and a lot of time to learn about it. It is a cheese with history after all.”

Raghid told me about the process used by Bedouins. “Traditionally, halloumi cheese is made from sheep’s or goat’s milk, which is a Bedouin method. They don’t have cows in the desert. They converted the milk into cheese by putting it inside a bag made from a sheep’s stomach and the enzyme in the stomach — the rennet — converted it to cheese. They obviously enjoyed it. And when it was boiled, it became ‘squeaky’, and was finally halloumi.”

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Along with seven varieties of halloumi, Yorkshire Dama Cheese also produces labneh for its customers. The couple have won multiple awards for their cheeses and Razan has met many influential people, including Hollywood star Cate Blanchett, who interviewed her as part of her role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency. Princess Anne, Britain’s Princess Royal, officially opened their factory.

“A big drive to be successful with our cheese business is because of our determination and hard work. We will always find a way, even if it is a more simple, easy and affordable way to achieve what we want. This is a very valuable lesson for anyone who wants to do well, especially for those who have nothing to start with. Don’t think that you can’t drive a car unless you have a Jaguar.”