After fleeing the war in Syria, Razan Al Sous launched Yorkshire Dama Cheese, a cheese making company specializing in haloumi cheese. In the short time she has been in business, she has won several food shows and her entrepreneurship has been recognized in the UK parliament as a positive example of Syrian refugees in the UK. Her story is an inspiring example of someone who was able to overcome hardship and create new opportunities.
| 1. Tell us about your background
I graduated from a medical institute and majored in laboratory science in Syria. I worked in marketing and later left to Abu Dhabi on a scholarship to Paris Sorbonne University where I studied languages, civilizations and economy. After meeting my husband, I moved back to Syria and had two daughters. My husband then encouraged me to study pharmacy because of my background and I finished the first year with high score. However, I couldn’t continue because of the war. We were living in Damascus but my university was in Dara. I was forced to quit because the university was completely destroyed.
| 2. When did you decide to leave Syria?
I was pregnant around the time I left school. After giving birth to my son, we realized that essential needs for baby were no longer available such as diapers and even milk for my older children. We were still patient at that time because it was very hard to process that our country was destroyed and at war. However, we decided we had no choice but to leave when they started kidnapping people for any reason and the explosions increased, one even being next to my husband’s office. We realized that there was no longer any stability and were left with no choice but to leave and restart our lives in the UK (we already had visas) where we had some family who could support us.
| 3. How did the idea of starting your own business come about?
When we came here we found that there was government aid and benefits provided for supporting people in positions like ours. However, it was very hard to for us to accept these benefits because we were used to being on the other end-the giving end versus the receiving end. Usually when we came to the UK it was for business purposes and conferences and it was hard for us to not be those people anymore. So we started thinking of what we could do to stand back up on our feet.
| 4. Where did the idea of making cheese come from?
I started to think of what is available and where there is a need. We didn’t just want to start any business. We live in Yorkshire, which is very famous for its high quality milk so I thought about cheese. When we would go to London we would hear that distribution of haloumi cheese had decreased since the war in Syria. The only place it was being imported from was Cypress. So I found that there was a need for Haloumi cheese. There is a producer in the west that also makes cheese but as of now I am the only producer in the north.
| 5. How were you able to start your business?
I didn’t have any prior experience in production and distribution of food. However, I had a microbiology background and knew how to deal with food within the hygiene and safety conditions and my husband had some background in food industry. I immediately sat down and wrote a business plan and researched avenues for funding. Since I was not yet established in the country, no bank would give me a loan. However, after some research I found out about the West Yorkshire Enterprise Agency, which gave me a Loan of about $3000 and provided me with business mentorship.
Now I needed to create a mechanism for making haloumi cheese similar to a production line. So I bought some second hand catering equipment and took it to a fabrication workshop and created a way to make the cheese in large quantities within the budget I had.
| 6. Tell us about your first order.
I had received all the approved paperwork on June 17, 2014 and had already registered for myself for the Harrogate Fine Food Show for June 22. Since I had just started, it was a challenge to participate in such a large show but I decided to throw myself into the middle of the ocean and swim. From this show, I got a lot of inquiries and met some distributors and through them I was able to get my first order in August right after Ramadan for 100 kilos of cheese. It was extremely exciting to get that first order. My husband and I ended up staying up until 4am making cheese so that we could take them to packaging at 7am for them to be prepared for the distributors at 10am. It was a huge relief to have my mother on hand to watch and help me with my children. That has been a huge blessing in all of this.
| 7. Where do you sell your cheese?
Right now we are selling in farm shops in Yorkshire and in other areas in the UK.
I also participated in a BBC food show in London right when I got started, which was a bit ambitious at the time but I was desperate to throw myself into the market. I brought two samples of my cheese and competed against 2750 other samples worldwide being judged by 225 judges. I was asked several times how long I have been making cheese and when I replied 6 months they were all a bit surprised as many of the other competitors have been making cheese for decades. That day I ended up winning the World Cheese Award bronze medal. This has really helped me with my success and increased my orders.
| 8. What do you see in the future of Dama cheese?
I have two goals for the future of the business. The first is to expand distribution in the UK and start exporting to other countries. We don’t feel that this is too far from our future because we already have a few investors interested in working with us. We have a lot of relations in the Middle East and some options to start exporting to America so we are very excited about the future.
The second goal is to expand our product range and become Yorkshire Dama Food. When we were waiting for our paperwork approval, I bid my time selling hummus, baba ghanoush and other dips at the village hall bazaar. Ever since then, there is a farm shop that puts in an order every week for these dips. So I want to expand our product range to include these type of high quality foods in addition to the cheese.
| 9. How have you adapted your life to living and working in a foreign country and what do you miss the most?
My life in Syria was better and more comfortable but I don’t want to compare. My success relies on my ability to put my head down and plow through and think straight about the future. Thinking about the past will only weigh me down. I am very grateful to be so accepted in this new community. A member of the parliament for Huddersfield brought up my story at a meeting at the house of parliament in London to give a positive example of Syrians refugees in England. He used my work to show that not all Syrians are coming here and just taking benefits and encouraged them to allow more Syrians to come. It makes me proud that I can give a good picture about the Syrian people.
Right now my brother and another Syrian are working without pay at the moment. We are all investing our time into this project because we know that the success will be for everyone.
| 10. What advice do you have for other women who might be in a similar position as yours?
When I first started with this idea I had 10 doubters for every supporter. I went through so much stress and headache to get this project off the ground but I learned one important thing. Never lend your ear to people. Any doubter I face now only challenges me to work harder. Concentrate on your goal and look for people who will tell you the truth and support you and stay away from people who will bring you down or won’t celebrate your success.
Honestly, I want to say to all the girls that never think that your life will stop at a limit- not marriage, not children, not any life change. Our times are not easy so don’t underestimate what you are capable of doing. I never imagined that I would be where I am today making cheese- especially because I had so many other ideas. The most important thing is to get started and one success will bring about another. Wear your hijab and religion proudly; there is nothing that can stop you. Our area here is mostly British and non-Muslim and I have been treated with nothing but respect. It’s not the way you look or what you wear but how you carry yourself and demand respect from those around you and hijab only encourages that type of confidence.
And always remember-there is no small task for Allah. Don’t ask small, go big with your duaa from Allah and He will be there for you.
As a new business, Yorkshire Dama Cheese could use some help growing. To help contribute to Razan’s success, you can make a donation through a GoFundMe link that Razan has set up.