Razan Alsous didn’t want to leave Syria. She lived in Damascus with her husband and three children, and had a full-time job marketing lab equipment. This was the country she’d grown up in – and her home. But by 2012, the anti-regime uprising had spiralled into civil war: ‘There was no electricity, no running water and no-one felt safe. It was awful seeing our favourite shops and restaurants turn to rubble,’ says Alsous, 34.
When a car bomb detonated outside her husband’s office, Alsous knew they’d have to flee: ‘We didn’t leave our beautiful country because we wanted to be elsewhere, we left our belongings and loved-ones behind for basic human rights and safety. We had to protect our children.’
Within a week, they were on a plane to the UK and moved in with Alsous’ brother-in-law in Huddersfield. ‘It wasn’t easy,’ she says. ‘We arrived in England with nothing but the bare essentials. Our life-savings suddenly became a fraction of what they were worth in Syria, and our middle-class status in Damascus meant nothing. The five of us shared one room for months and we bought everything – toys, clothes, a pram – from charity shops.'
Alsous had graduated as a medical laboratory technician from Damscus University and studied languages and civilisation at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. She also had a pharmacy degree from IUST under her belt. But her qualifications were worthless in the UK. ‘I was granted asylum but I couldn’t re-qualify. Back then, I wasn’t allowed to study in the UK until I’d been a resident for three years. It was very upsetting. I didn’t study for all those years just to sign on at the Job Centre – but that’s what I had to do.’
She found work as an interpreter but couldn’t depend on the ad-hoc assignments for income. So she decided to start her own business.
In Damascus, Alsous and her family would eat halloumi every day for breakfast. But when she moved to the UK, she struggled to find a decent brand; it was all imported, full of salt and made from powdered milk. So Alsous started to make her own halloumi cheese, using the ‘sweet and creamy’ local Yorkshire milk. ‘I’ve always loved cooking,’ she says. ‘In Syria, we’d have 20-30 people round for dinner every weekend and I’d enjoy watching their faces as they ate my home-cooked food.’
Alsous experimented for months to get her halloumi cheese recipe just right. ‘It helped that I have a background in science – there’s a chemistry to cooking cheese.’
Alsous presented her business plan to the Local Enterprise Agency and was granted £2,500. That wasn't enough to buy state-of-the-art equipment so she adapted cheaper products, such as an ice-cream maker. Her brother-in-law let her use the kitchen premises at the back of his fried chicken shop.
She launched Yorkshire Dama Cheese in 2014 and was nominated by former Prime Minister David Cameron as an International Women’s Day ambassador the following year. The business has won 17 awards and is now stocked in numerous farm shops and independent stores across Yorkshire and Scotland. It has moved into a dedicated production facility (opened by Princess Anne) and uses around 3,000 litres of milk a week to make cheese. Alsous is looking at funding options to allow her to churn out more.
She describes the current situation in Syria as ‘heartbreaking’. ‘So many innocent lives have been lost. Children go to bed, never to wake up. I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve been given another chance of life.’
Razan Alsous will be sharing her story at MT's Inspiring Women in Business conference in Edinburgh on 15th May. Get tips and advice from Britain's most powerful businesswomen. Hear from Skyscanner, Clydesdale Bank, CBI Scotland, Atkins and more. Guest speakers: AMV BBDO group CEO Dame Cilla Snowball and Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader and MSP for Edinburgh Central.