The Syrian cheese-maker of Bavaria

How a Syrian refugee is bringing a little piece of home to Germany in the form of traditional Syrian cheese.

The unexpected cheesemaker - Please do not use
The story of how a refugee resolved to become Germany's first Syrian cheese-maker [Kait Bolongaro/Al Jazeera]

Gunzburg, Germany – When Rami Haki fled to Germany in early 2015, becoming an entrepreneur was the furthest thing from his mind.

He had enjoyed a successful career as an electrical engineer and university professor in Damascus, Syria, and anticipated finding work quickly in the robust German job market. 

“But,” says the 38-year-old, “when I arrived, I saw that it is very difficult because you need to speak good German and get your qualifications [authenticated].”

Rami now calls Gunzburg, a quaint Bavarian town where traditional houses line the streets of the historic centre, home.

He lives in a refugee shelter with his wife, Hanaa, and their four young children. It is an old barracks-style building where 42 people from across the world live in eight large rooms and 12 smaller ones. A kitchen is shared between 10 people.

The German government prevents refugees from working until they are granted asylum, but it does provide the family with a $1,743 monthly stipend to cover their expenses. 

Still, this troubles Rami. His father instilled in him the belief that one should earn one’s own keep – even in difficult circumstances – and he says that he feels uncomfortable relying on the government to support his family. 

“I didn’t want to take money from social services all the time for doing nothing,” he says. “It was very harmful to my mind.” 

Knowing that he could not find employment, Rami tried to find meaningful ways to fill his time – making friends, joining associations and learning German. He even became a member of a traditional shooting club, typically a bastion of the region’s more conservative elements.

But, despite his efforts to keep busy, the idleness began to take a toll on his mental health.

“For the first few months, every day when I woke up, I asked myself why I came here,” he says.

“In Syria, I’m an important man. When somebody works for 20 years and you say to him, ‘Now just sit in the house,’ it’s very hard.”

He decided to develop a project that would help to restore his professional pride – and, he hoped, one day help him regain his financial independence.

After a relative in Syria gave him a recipe to make cheese, Rami and his wife Hanaa transformed their kitchen into a dairy laboratory [Kait Bolongaro/Al Jazeera] 
After a relative in Syria gave him a recipe to make cheese, Rami and his wife Hanaa transformed their kitchen into a dairy laboratory [Kait Bolongaro/Al Jazeera] 

An accidental passion

As Rami was devising a way out of his professional hibernation, he was also missing those foods that reminded him of home – Syrian cucumbers, kibbeh and cheeses. No matter how hard he looked, he could not find the white akkawi cheese he craved.

He tried all sorts of cheeses – German, French, Danish and Swiss – hoping that one would come close – but with no luck.

“It’s not that it’s not good,” he says. “But I have something from my country in my head and in my heart. I want to eat what I ate for 37 years [in Syria].”

“German cheese is perfect, but the cheese here isn’t the same as in my country.” 

He reached out to the Syrian community on social media, hoping that somebody would be able to point him in the direction of a shop that stocked akkawi. But nobody knew of one.

An idea began to form in Rami’s mind: He decided to become Germany’s first Syrian cheese-maker. A relative in Syria gave him a recipe, and Rami and Hanaa collected the ingredients: farm-fresh milk, nigella, a black seed used in Syrian cuisine, rennet and salt. Little by little, the duo transformed their shared kitchen in the refugee shelter into a dairy laboratory.

“First, everything must be clean and sanitary,” says Rami, who closely adheres to Germany’s strict food preparation laws. He learned them online and from a Palestinian friend who has lived in Germany for 25 years.

Cleanliness is important in Syrian culture, he explains, adding that it is especially so for those living as refugees. “Syrian people want to give the German people a correct and good image of Syria,” he says.

INTERACTIVE: Alex Assali – The Syrian refugee giving back to Germany

Rami and Hanaa begin by pouring five litres of milk into a pot. After bringing the milk to a boil, it is left to cool. Once it has reached 40C, Rami adds rennet to solidify the milk and nigella for flavour. The pot is then wrapped in a thick blanket for 45 minutes.

As he waits for it, Rami begins to speak about Syria. He remembers friends – some of them dead now – and others who have fled to different parts of the world. He talks of the country he’s left behind. His eyes fill with tears.

As he was talking, the milk turned into a soft cheese.

Hanaa places the akkawi into a soft net to remove the water. She salts the drained cheese and lets it sit for another hour. She is quiet as she concentrates on squeezing the cheese.

A trained nurse from Damascus, Hanaa is the daughter of a wealthy landowner who was murdered, Rami explains, on the orders of a jealous neighbour and former family friend. He was shot dead by a hired gunman in the street. Her brother was killed 15 days later, and her mother a short while after that. Another brother also died in mysterious circumstances.

Hanaa became the sole heir to the family’s fortune, and it soon became clear that she was next on the hit-list.

When Rami received a phone call telling him that his wife was the next target, he knew it was time to leave.

“I didn’t want to leave Syria, but my daughter asked me: ‘Papa, please take me to Germany,'” he remembers.

Bringing a small piece of Syria to Germany

Rami recalls the first batch of cheese he attempted to make: “I was very sad because it didn’t work,” he says. The taste and texture were wrong. “But my father taught me that you don’t always succeed the first time, so you have to have courage to try again.” 

So, he carefully followed each step again. This time, the result was the taste of his childhood. “My wife told me it was perfect. My friends tried a piece and said ‘You can sell this,'” he explains proudly. Rami was inspired. His goal became to share this little piece of Syria with the Syrians living in Germany.

Hanaa and Rami hope their cheese will help other Syrians feel just a little more at home in Germany [Kait Bolongaro/Al Jazeera] 
Hanaa and Rami hope their cheese will help other Syrians feel just a little more at home in Germany [Kait Bolongaro/Al Jazeera] 

When he told a Facebook group for Syrians in Germany about the cheese, the reaction was instant. “Many people wanted to order cheese,” he says. “I didn’t have enough for everyone.”

They now produce around 10kg of cheese a day, but their efforts still cannot satisfy demand. “I want a big kitchen and a big place to make the cheese,” says Rami.

He has already shipped more than 1,000kg of akkawi. For now, the enterprise does not turn a profit – they barely cover production costs. And Rami likes to give out free samples.

“This is smart business. It is a type of propaganda,” he laughs.

A member of German society

Throughout the entire asylum process, Rami has kept his papers diligently organised. He even arrived in Germany with his family’s documents already professionally translated from Arabic into German.

“The case officer told me that she had never seen anyone do that before,” he says. 

If his refugee status is approved, the budding entrepreneur would like to register for a business licence to mass produce akkawi. Rami knows that German law can be rigid, but he is determined to get his small business off the ground.

“When I sell something, I want to pay my taxes,” he explains. “If someone from the government could show me how to succeed, I would be happy.” 

While his heart is in Syria, Rami now wants to give back to the country that has sheltered him and his family. His goal is to become a tax-paying member of German society.

Rami, Hanaa and their four children [Kait Bolongaro/Al Jazeera] 
Rami, Hanaa and their four children [Kait Bolongaro/Al Jazeera] 

For Rami, making akkawi has given him a renewed sense of purpose. “I want to make Germany fall in love with my cheese,” he says. 

When Rami and Hanaa finish making the cheese, their children clamour into the kitchen for a snack. The oldest are attending school and already speak fluent German.

The parents call their youngest son, Ricardo, a “Made in Germany” baby. He was conceived shortly after their arrival and was born in the nearby city of Ulm. Named after a new Portuguese family friend, he is the culmination of their journey to Germany and a symbol of their desire to succeed in their new country.

Source: Al Jazeera