Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle

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Razan Alsous decided to make her own halloumi after a fruitless search for the family staple. Her Yorkshire Dama Cheese firm (below) now employs eight people and counts Princess Anne (far left) among its admirers. (Alex Cousins)
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Updated 20 August 2018
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Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle

YORKSHIRE, UK: This is a very cheesy story, in the best possible way. It is also a story about resourcefulness, determination and how to build a new life when an old one is lost.
It takes place in a small factory in northern England, where Razan Alsous, 34, a refugee from the war in her native Syria, is forging a reputation as a producer of top-quality halloumi cheese.
She founded her company, Yorkshire Dama Cheese (Dama being short for Damascus) in 2014, less than two years after arriving in England with her husband, Raghid Sandouk, 53, and their three children. Just four months later, Razan won a bronze medal at the World Cheese Awards. The following year she took gold.
Now branded Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese, her halloumi went on sale earlier this year in 40 branches of Morrisons, one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains. It was an instant hit and now Morrisons want to stock it in 275 stores nationwide.
Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, the supermarket giants, also want Razan’s halloumi on their shelves. No wonder, then, that Yorkshire Dama Cheese is looking into acquiring more equipment and bigger premises to meet the increasing clamour for its products.
For a young mother-of-three with zero experience of the food industry to go from complete novice to prize-winner in a matter of months would be impressive enough if Razan had lived in Yorkshire all her life.
That she started a business in a foreign country, with unfamiliar laws and customs, and is succeeding, makes her story inspirational.
Being foreign, from Syria, and a Muslim, has barely provoked comment, she said.
“There was a taxi driver — an Asian — who asked me if I was Muslim. I said, ‘Look at me, I’m wearing a headscarf, of course I’m Muslim.’ And he said he thought I might be a nun.
“Generally, I find people are not focused on how I look. They focus on the product. They see someone who is working hard, trying to do something and they want to support you. It’s very positive. I love the personal contact I have with the farmers, who accepted me straight away. I see that England and Syria are quite similar. They are both old civilizations that value history. I feel I am with people who understand me.”
Until six years ago, the family enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle with a home on the outskirts of Damascus. Razan, who has a degree in microbiology, was studying pharmacology at Damascus University. Raghid, an electronics engineer, owned his own company supplying quality control equipment to the pharmaceutical industry.
When the conflict began in 2011, they tried to suppress their fears, even as it began to affect their lives more and more.
“We couldn’t visit our family. Each time Raghid went to work I didn’t know if he’d be back. His warehouse was smashed up by armed gangs. There were people being kidnapped just for dealing with British companies,” said Razan.
Then, on July 23, 2012, a car bomb exploded outside the building where Raghid had his office.
“He called me and said, ‘I’m alive but everything is destroyed.’ All he could see was dust,” said Razan. Three days later, the family were on a plane out of Syria.
“My father didn’t want us to leave. He said everything will be all right, and if it had just been Raghid and me, we would have stayed. It was harder for Raghid because he had a business he had built up over 15 years, with 15 employees. I asked him to leave. I could cope with no electricity. I could cope with limited water. I could cope with everything except lack of safety for my children. You can’t just sit there and wait to die.”
The family came to the UK because Raghid had a multiple-entry business visa and they had connections in the country. Raghid’s grandfather used to travel regularly to Huddersfield, a wool-producing town, to buy cloth for his textile shop, and Raghid’s brother had settled there 30 years ago.
Although the couple clung to the belief that their stay would be temporary, Raghid’s brother advised them to apply for asylum. Razan was granted temporary permission to stay after five weeks. For Raghid, it took almost two years.
“At first, we felt we were on holiday. It was summer, people were relaxed,” said Razan. But with the Syrian pound plummeting in value, their life savings were quickly depleted. They could not get jobs as their qualifications were not recognized. Nor could they study to re-qualify. Razan picked up some translation work, but it was irregular. She hated “signing on” — applying for welfare benefits.
Razan hit on her business idea one day after a fruitless search for halloumi that tasted as good as the cheese that is a staple of family breakfasts back home in Syria. The shops stocked what she describes as “tasteless” halloumi, imported from Cyprus, and made with powdered milk.
“That’s when it struck me: I would make cheese,” she said.
In her research she discovered that the British were the biggest consumers of halloumi in Europe. Her brother-in-law, who owned a string of fast-food businesses, gave her the use of the kitchen in a defunct chicken shop, where she spent a year experimenting with recipes. She found the key ingredient right under her nose.
“Yorkshire milk. The quality is excellent — much creamier with a high percentage of solids,” said Razan. “In Syria, the best halloumi is made in springtime when the grass is new and green. But here the climate is more consistent for good pasture, so the milk is more consistent in quality.”
She mentioned her idea to an adviser at the local Job Center, who referred her to the Enterprise Agency. She was assigned a mentor who steered her through researching the market and drawing up a business plan before applying for a start-up loan.
She received £2,500 to be repaid within two years. The loan was not enough to buy all the equipment she needed, but the ever-resourceful Raghid adapted an ice-cream maker so that it heated the milk instead of cooling it, and converted an insulated fish tank into a fridge.
They began by selling to local delis and cafes. Razan spent her last £500 on the fee for an exhibitor’s stall at the Harrogate Fine Food Show. It proved to be a wise move.
“People loved the cheese and we met our first distributor. He said: ‘This is what we need in Yorkshire,’ and we are still working with him.”
Four months after beginning production, they entered the World Cheese Awards, held in the huge exhibition center in London’s Olympia. It was an eye-opener.
“We knew nothing about it. There were 2,750 different cheeses on display, big blocks of Cheddar … and we arrived with just a few blocks of cheese. We looked very silly,” said Razan. Her initial reaction was to turn and go home. But Raghid said they might as well stay and just enjoy it.
To their amazement, they won the bronze medal. “We were jumping around, shouting. I phoned all my family. We were overjoyed.”
The next year, they entered again and won gold. “It proved the first time was not a fluke. We really did have a good product that people like,” said Razan.
The walls and every spare surface of the office above the factory floor are now covered in awards. For the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016, they supplied cheese for the British embassy party in Vienna.
Razan and her halloumi have appeared on television and when he was prime minister, David Cameron nominated her as an ambassador for International Women’s Day in 2015.
Last year, Yorkshire Dama Cheese moved out of the disused chicken shop into their current premises on a small industrial estate. Princess Anne, the Queen’s daughter, came to open the new factory last year and stayed for lunch.
“She requested it, and she stayed almost two hours, much longer than her schedule,” said Raghid. “It was a proud day,” Razan said.
The 1,200 liters of milk collected daily from a local dairy farmer is turned into around 2,500 blocks of halloumi each week. The Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese brand came about because Cyprus was seeking Protected Designated Origin status for the halloumi name, a label granted by the EU to a small number of products. The name stuck.
“It works because the test of good halloumi is the squeak when you squeeze it, and also kids like it,” said Razan.
As well as five varieties of halloumi, they make labneh, also labelled “spreadable yogurt” for customers unfamiliar with the Middle Eastern name. The whey left over from making halloumi becomes ricotta cheese. Nothing is wasted and nothing is added, said Razan.
Weekends are spent at food fairs and farmers’ markets. Sales to restaurants, independent shops and online customers have “gone crazy” in the past six months.
They have now bought a house and the children — Angie, 9, Yara, 8, and Kareem, 6 — are happily settled in school. “They are Yorkshire kids now. They laugh at my accent,” said Razan.
Razan’s parents and siblings have followed her to Britain. Her father volunteers at the Buzz Project, running community beehives, where he is known by the nickname Mr. Honey.
Though it pains her to admit it, the prospect of returning to Damascus is receding. “I cannot close down because we have eight employees depending on us,” said Razan. “But I want my children to know where they came from and we will take them when it is safe.”
That’s not all they intend to take back to Syria.
“We aim to export our halloumi to Syria,” said Raghid. “With Yorkshire milk and Syrian know-how, we will make the UK the halloumi capital of the world.”


Saudi women’s social enterprise protects Syrian refugees from hunger, thirst and loneliness

Jonnah store sells minimal wear made by women and men at Al-Azraq Refugee Camp, and designed by fashion designers from Saudi Arabia. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 19 November 2018
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Saudi women’s social enterprise protects Syrian refugees from hunger, thirst and loneliness

  • “Jonnah” in Arabic means the shield. According to Al-Bassam, their store’s name is borrowed from a Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in which he said “Fasting is a shield”
  • Joined in compassion for the refugees, Al-Bassam and Aburas co-founded the Jonnah store

JEDDAH: “As you return home, to your home, think of others, do not forget the people of the camps,” said Mahmoud Darwish in one of his most well-known poems, “Think of Others.” Darwish was regarded as the Palestinian national poet and lived between 1941 and 2008.
Fatimah Al-Bassam, 26 (@FatimaAlBassam) and Nouf Aburas, 28 (@Noufaburas) are two young Saudi women who were on a voluntary trip to Al-Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan when they decided to start a social business to offer a sustainable solution to help the refugees.
“The idea began in October 2017. We were in the camp on a trip organized by Takatuf volunteering group and Care International,” Al-Bassam told Arab News.
It all began with a question. “The group’s guide from the camp asked us about the most significant problem the people suffered from at the camp. The volunteers gave several answers like hunger, poverty, lack of health care, but the true answer actually was idleness,” she added.
Al-Bassam said the refugees have been living in this situation for years. Their minimum needs, such as shelter, clothes, and food are usually met by relief organizations, but they have nothing to do but wait in their caravans or tents for time to pass.
The refugees are full of energy and enthusiasm but the opportunities are not there. “During the visit, I met a lady who told me that she graduated from a sewing course and has a certificate. She wants to practice her skill but she has nothing to do,” Al-Bassam said.
“I was thinking, they have people who are good at sewing. They have sewing factories, but they do not have the opportunities to work, and that’s what they need, a sustainable solution.”
Al-Bassam and Aburas joined in compassion for the refugees and co-founded the social development enterprise Jonnah store.
In addition to her full-time job, Al-Bassam is a member of a volunteering group that organizes trips, many of which focus on the refugee crisis. Aburas already has experience in a social enterprise to support women in Saudi Arabia.
They collaborated with Care International in Jordan (@CAREJor), one of the main humanitarian agencies in the camp.
Jonnah store (@jonnahstore) creates the right conditions to motivate the Syrian refugees to play an active role in alleviating the suffering of their society members, overcoming economic, social and cultural challenges, and enabling them to meet their primary needs of security, shelter, food, health and education.
This happens by giving refugees the opportunity to practice their skills. It is a store that sells minimal wear made by people at the camp and designed by fashion designers from Saudi Arabia.
“Jonnah” in Arabic means the shield. According to Al-Bassam, their store’s name is borrowed from a Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in which he said “Fasting is a shield,” because it shields the believer from himself, from his wrongdoings, and from behaving foolishly and impudently.
“We want the Jonnah project to be the tool by which refugees protect themselves from hunger, thirst, and loneliness through the money they are making and the community that is being built,” said Al-Bassam.
“I have a social business in Saudi Arabia. I am interested in social issues, and poverty in particular,” Aburas told Arab News.
She is the founder of Kurt (@kurtstore), a social enterprise she founded in 2013 which supports local, disadvantaged women and teaches them tailoring so they can produce abayas as a sustainable means to fight poverty.
“We did not want to go back home without doing anything. When we returned to Saudi Arabia we recognized that I had experience in a sewing and clothing business and Fatimah had experience in volunteering work and she had the contacts, so we founded Jonnah.”
Al-Bassam and Aburas went to the camp in Jordan again in December 2017 to start the business.
They started with six refugees working in the factory, and the number later increased to eight. And they are willing to increase the number of benefitting refugees as they grow their business.
It took them three months to produce the first collection. They faced some obstacles at the beginning, one being communication with the organization at the camp, which has many other priorities.
“It’s hard sometimes, because they are a relief organization. They are not business oriented, so sending and receiving emails back takes some time,” said Al-Bassam.
Moreover, achieving the desired product quality does not happen immediately. Aburas said that raising a social enterprise has the same challenges as any other enterprise: Following regulations in the country, keeping a consistent production line, and maintaining quality. All of that needs continuous effort and faces some obstacles.
“You want a bigger impact, but to make the impact you have to go through everything,” she said.
However, there is an important difference between a social business and any other business.
“You make more profit, not in order to make more money, but you make more profit to help more people so you have a bigger impact. More money is just the tool,” Aburas said.
Sometimes people do not understand the concept of how social enterprises work. They may think that the refugee or the beneficiary receives 100 percent of the money they pay, but that is not how the business works. Everything has a cost and the company needs the money to keep going and benefit more people.
Jonnah Store goods are sold through Instagram, and they also participate in exhibitions. Al-Bassam and Aburas aspire to expand their project to reach more customers. They hope to launch their website, hire more refugees, collaborate with more designers, and cooperate with more companies in Saudi Arabia and in the world.
Jonnah sells female clothing in the meantime. In addition to Jonnah’s line of designs, it has expanded its business plan; Jonnah can be the interface between the designers and the factory at the camp.
“We would tell them: You are going to produce your collection anyway. Give us a sample and the material, and we will have your collection produced in Al-Azraq camp,” Aburas said.
“What really distinguishes Jonnah is that it has occupied refugees’ time and improved their social life as well. They gather in the factory every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., learn new things and get to know their neighbors. They feel that they have a goal in their lives,” Al-Bassam said.
“I remember when we came back to the camp the second time, I found some seamstresses wearing the clothes they worked on. They actually bought them from Jonnah.”
One of the seamstresses told them: “I have never been so proud of myself as I am now.”
Another one said: “Since I was in Syria I dreamed of sewing clothes for others. Now I see people wearing the clothes I made. I feel that my dream is coming true.”
For Al-Bassam, the issue is not only about having a sustainable income, but also about their psychology, in how what they do is reflected on their self-confidence and sense of hope.
“You only need to be human to have empathy and compassion for the refugees,” she said.
“When we went to the seamstresses and tailors, we thought we were going to help them, but we found that we were the ones who drew strength and energy from them,” said Aburas.
Moreover, Jonnah received good feedback from custumers. “We had custumers who bought the clothes because they liked them, and we had those who bought from us as an act of compassion and benevolence. For example, some men would buy from us for their sisters and mothers,” she said.
Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world, said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Syria crisis has accelerated more dramatically than any crisis on earth. Syrians continue to be the largest forcibly displaced population in the world, exceeding Afghanistan and Somalia by millions of people.
More than half of the prewar population has been internally displaced or forced to seek safety in neighboring countries. That’s more than 12 million people, including some 6.3 million people who have escaped across the borders.
According to the latest factsheet published in October by the refugee agency UNHCR, the Blue Camp (Azraq) in Jordan is home to 40,712 Syrian refugees, nearly 22 percent of whom are under five years old.
Opened on April 30, 2014, the camp stretches in a 14.7 square-kilometer area; 75 km away from Saudi Arabia’s national borders, and 90 km away from Syria.
The camp is managed in co-coordination with the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate and UNHCR.
Al-Bassam said that the refugee crisis is a combination of more than one problem. People in the camps not only lack basic needs of shelter and food, they have also lost their homes and experienced horrific events.
“I believe governments are not doing enough, and we as individuals are not doing enough. We can do a lot more. I always wanted to do something for them,” she said.
“As Jonnah, we go to the camp by ourselves to receive the goods, we meet with the staff and listen to their suggestions and complaints, and we pay them by ourselves,” she added.
“We do not want it to be just a business. Direct communication makes them feel our appreciation and attention, and that in itself makes us want to keep going.”
Mahmoud Darwish ended his poem with the following line: “As you think of others far away, think of yourself, say: ‘If only I were a candle in the dark’.”