I’m one of thousands of refugees who fled Syria in 2012 to find safety in the UK. My family and I 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 arrived in the UK with nothing, not a penny to our name, but six years on I’ve built a profitable business from scratch. I now make and sell cheese using authentic Syrian recipes to thousands of customers up and down the country. And in doing so, I get to keep the traditions of my homeland alive.
Damascus in 2012 was decaying, the signs of political unrest starting to show. This was before Isis was well-known but even then no one felt safe in the city, we had to show ID everywhere we went. The feeling of fear mixed with the heartbreak of watching our favourite shops and restaurants turn to rubble – this was not the Syria we grew up in.
My husband worked as an electronic engineer, and when a bomb hit his office, we knew it was time to leave. Our three children’s safety came first, even though that meant leaving family and close friends behind. I’ll never forget saying goodbye to them, not sure when or if we’d see them again.
We arrived in the UK with very little. The Syrian pound had dropped in value significantly, which made things difficult. Our life savings suddenly became a fraction of what they were worth in Syria, and our middle-class status in Damascus meant nothing now.
But we were luckier than most. We could speak English and my brother-in-law moved to Yorkshire 30 years before the war, so we were welcomed by a friendly face. Many refugees arrive in the UK with no one to greet them, unable to speak English.
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Before the war, my husband and I had full-time jobs. I studied Laboratory Sciences at University and had a career in marketing, but in the UK we struggled to get work. My degree wasn’t recognised and my husband’s Residency Visa took over a year to process, leaving him unable to work initially.
With three children under three-years-old to support, I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t retrain or study as we couldn’t afford childcare, so I decided to start my own business. I was always told you need passion to run a business, and one of the things I’m passionate about is Syrian food.
I’d been in the UK a few months but already noticed the lack of authentic squeaky cheese, known to most as Halloumi. In Syria we had it every day for breakfast, so to keep traditions alive we tried to find the same cheese in our area. After searching everywhere, none of the supermarkets had it all year round. So I decided to make my own.
I spent hours and hours in the kitchen trying every recipe and method to replicate my favourite Syrian delicacy. Once I knew the product tasted great I spoke to my advisor at the Huddersfield job centre who put me in touch with the Start Up Loans Company. I received a loan of £2,500 to buy milk from local Yorkshire diaries, other ingredients and equipment. With the help of my husband we started producing our Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese to sell at markets and food festivals.
After four months of trading we won our first award, The Guild of Fine Food’s ‘World Cheese Award’, for great tasting cheese made from Yorkshire produce, which led to a second round of funding to help pay for more equipment and factory space. Since then we’ve won 17 more awards and had a visit from Princess Anne, who enjoyed our squeaky cheese.
Five years after our initial funding we now turnover more than £100,000 a year. We’re also expanding our product line to include yogurt balls and low-fat cottage cheese. We are currently stocked in farm shops across Yorkshire but it’s my dream for our cheese to be stocked in all UK supermarkets so everyone can taste the great mix of Syrian flavours and Yorkshire ingredients, and I’ll keep going until that happens.
We’ve sacrificed everything to get where we are, but when Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese is a household name, and we’ve made enough money for a secure future, our kids will appreciate why we’ve worked so hard. We’ve taken a beloved tradition from our homeland and combined it with part of our new home to create something they can be proud of.
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