The Syrian refugees shaping British food

Joey Tyson

Since the start of the civil war in 2011, 5.6 million people have fled Syria to escape its bitter conflict. A fraction of those have built new lives in Britain. But getting to safety is just one of many challenges facing refugees settling in the UK—finding work isn’t easy, either. For these three resourceful people, setting up their own businesses in the food industry proved to be the best option, each one bringing something new to Britain. These are their remarkable stories

Razan Alsous, 37: Yorkshire Dama Cheese


Since launching Yorkshire Dama Cheese, Razan Alsous has won 22 awards for the quality of her cheese. Any way you slice it, that’s impressive. Even more so when you consider this: Razan had never made cheese before starting her business in 2014.

In that short time, Razan can count a visit from Princess Anne, being interviewed by Cate Blanchett for the UNHCR, and an appearance on BBC’s Countryfile among the businesses’ many achievements. Though there’s been plenty of success, it has come at a tremendous cost.

Razan arrived in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, in 2012, with her husband, Raghid, 55, and three young children. They had left almost everything in Syria, as the country plunged deeper into a vicious civil war. Despite having a degree in pharmacology, a lack of references and British work experience made finding a job difficult. For well over a year Razan searched, desperate to build a new life for her family, until one day, a tiny piece of her Syrian culture clicked into place, in Yorkshire.

“We used to buy it from the supermarket, but we didn’t love the taste or the texture because halloumi here uses much more powdered milk than fresh,” she says, recalling a trip to the supermarket to buy halloumi, a staple breakfast food in Syria.

"I noticed how wonderful the milk in Yorkshire is. For people living here, you might not find it unique, but for people from overseas, the taste is absolutely different to other milk"

“I noticed how wonderful the milk in Yorkshire is. For people living here, you might not find it unique, but for people from overseas, the taste is absolutely different to other milk,” Razan says. “All this information clicked in my head—why can’t I do this [make cheese] for a business using British milk?”

With a grant of £2,500 from the West Yorkshire Enterprise Agency, Razan was able to rent a small shop in Sowerby Bridge, Halifax, and buy the basic equipment she needed to get started. Raghid, with his engineering expertise and knowledge of the food industry, adapted the machinery so it would meet their needs. “We started making cheese with equipment that wasn’t made to make cheese,” she says.

Today, Razan sells her “squeaky cheese” (the name “halloumi” is trademarked as a designated Cypriot product) in shops all over Yorkshire, Scotland and the south of England, as well as online. Although the pandemic has hindered production, Yorkshire Dama Cheese is finding its feet again. Having been through so much already, Razan is used to working in a crisis.

“Life is always up and down. Maybe because we have experienced a different pandemic—leaving our country, our home, leaving our history. We had to leave everything behind and come here. It helped us to understand life better and absorb problems,” says Razan.

 

Mohammed Rahimeh, 27: Mo’s Eggs


Before COVID-19 ground the world to a shuddering halt, Mohammed “Mo” Rahimeh was cooking eggs. Lots of eggs. Sometimes, his brunch club “Mo’s Eggs” would serve as many as 150 people during its monthly Sunday sitting.

“Sometimes I’d make 600 eggs! It’s crazy,” he says.

Mo was settling into a new space, Benk + Bo, in London’s famous Spitalfields Market when the pandemic hit, forcing him to put his popular pop-up on hold. Like many, Mo has found lockdown tough. “I like to meet people face to face, so it’s been hard for me staying at home.”

Other than his famous baked eggs, Mo’s ability to connect with people is at the heart of his remarkable success story.

In 2016, Mo fled his home in Damascus. The conflict in Syria had torn into its fifth year with little sign of abating; after a treacherous journey, Mo found himself in Calais’ infamous Jungle refugee camp. It was here, amid the makeshift shelters and sand dunes, that Mo would begin an unlikely path towards starting one of London’s hottest brunch clubs.

It all started as a gesture of thanks.

“There is something called the Jungle Box, where volunteers teach English. I didn’t speak any English at all. I started to invite my English teachers to my shelter, cooking for them with what we had.”

"When I cook the eggs, I cook it for myself, as if it were me eating it. Make it good, make it delicious"

During his year in the camp, Mo began volunteering around the Jungle, helping out where he could. As his English improved, he’d act as a translator between Arabic-speaking refugees and other volunteers. But it was in the kitchen where he really found his voice.

“At the end of the day, I’d be ‘Mr Chef’, cooking for refugees and volunteers—we’d all enjoy food at the same table.” Despite having no professional cooking experience— back in Damascus, Mo was a tailor—his food was a hit. What he enjoyed most, though, was bringing people together.

As for his famous baked eggs, it was a case of combining his heritage with the ingredients available.

“I use recipes from my family, especially my mum. I try to keep my culture in the food, especially with the spices. We were lucky, we had cumin, pepper, and salt.”

Eventually, Mo made it to the UK in December 2017, but he would have to wait another year for his refugee status to be granted. During this time, unable to work and encouraged by friends he’d met in Calais, he hatched a plan to start a Syrian brunch club, making use of his homeland’s signature flavours—fresh hummus, pomegranate salads, Syrian-style tea, and eggs.

Since his first pop up at Lost Boys Pizza, North London, last summer, Mo’s Eggs has snowballed into a brunch behemoth, with seats at one of his tables akin to culinary gold dust. So, what’s Mo’s secret? Well, it’s all in the eggs, of course.

“When I cook the eggs, I cook it for myself, as if it were me eating it. Make it good, make it delicious.”

 

Ryad Alsous, 67: The Buzz Project


When Ryad Alsous arrived in England, he knew one thing: he wanted to keep bees. The insects had been a major part of his life in Syria, and, fleeing his war-torn homeland, it was a precious certainty amid so much chaos.

As a lecturer at the University of Damascus, Ryad had built a respected reputation for his research on Syrian bees. With over 500 hives, he produced over ten tons of honey every year. Fleeing his country in 2013, he lost everything.

Yet even with all his knowledge and experience, Ryad didn’t know if his dream would be possible in the UK. “I found that there is a lot of rain and the temperature isn’t very high. All the time on the way back from the airport, I was thinking, How can I set up another project here? I thought it would be impossible because of the weather.”

The wet weather wasn’t Ryad’s only challenge. The language barrier and a vastly overqualified CV made it difficult to find work. Eventually, Ryad volunteered at the Huddersfield Beekeepers’ Association, but he was still without a colony of his own. It would take three years for Ryad to begin his British beekeeping adventure.

Finally, Facebook brought him into contact with a woman in Manchester who was willing to donate an entire colony of rare British black bees.

"I was thinking, ‘how can I set up another project here!’ I thought it would be impossible because of the weather"

“In one year, I was able to split the colony she gave me into seven. I realised that the beekeeping project could become very profitable and successful in the UK.”

Soon, Ryad found himself with 17 hives, but he wasn’t finished yet. His inner teacher was itching to get out. Through City of Sanctuary, a British refugee charity, Ryad began to run beekeeping workshops for refugees and job seekers. The Buzz Project was born.

Then, in 2017, a random encounter with the Huddersfield mayor would help take the project to the next level. On his advice, Ryad approached The Canal and River Trust, obtaining a patch of land on the banks of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal with space for ten hives. A grant from the Police Commissioner’s Fund followed, allowing Ryad to buy vital equipment and supplies.

Today, the Buzz Project houses 14 hives, where Ryad shares his expertise with 25 students—a relationship that’s starting to bear fruit. Last year, they produced half a ton of honey (around 1,000 jars). But for Ryad, the most important thing is bringing people together.

“We have local people, jobseekers and volunteers, in addition to refugees. All of them work together doing the same job. The exchange between the groups, the information and skills, helps them integrate very well and improve their language skills,” he says.

Once it’s safe to do so, he’s hoping to increase the Buzz Project’s honey production and open a shop. “It will be like a co-op, selling their honey and products made from honey,” says Ryad.

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