Plea for vacant Lochaber homes for Ukrainian war refugees

Steven Smith and his partner, Sandra Melnkaite, took over the lease for the running of the popular Dining Car cafe at Glenfinnan Station Museum recently. NO F10 dining car 02 cropped
Steven Smith and his partner, Sandra Melnkaite, are looking at ways to sponsor Ukrainian refugees to come to live and work in Lochaber.

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A local businessman is appealing to owners of vacant properties across Lochaber and the wider Highlands to consider making them available for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Earlier this year, Steven Smith and his partner, Sandra Melnkaite, took over the lease for the running of the popular Dining Car cafe at Glenfinnan Station Museum, which they are now in the process of refurbishing.

The couple, who also own property in the Oban area, are currently living at Glenfinnan Station Cottage with their  two young sons, Gighian and Odhren.

They already run the Kilted Camel boutique café and coffee shop in Fort William with Sandra’s sister.

Mr Smith told the Lochaber Times that he and Sandra were looking at ways to sponsor Ukrainian refugees to come to live and work in Lochaber and down in Lorn.

Mr Smith told us: ‘I have a few friends from when I was in Ukraine in 2010 – I was caught up in Russia bureaucracy trying to get a fire engine to Mongolia and people from the Donbass region really helped us out, putting us up for a month and got us into Russia. The same people now are either fighting or are refugees.’

Mr Smith told the Lochaber Times of his friend Julia, who together with her four-year-old child and her mother, spent 10 days in a bomb shelter in Kyiv as Russian troops shelled the country’s capital city.

Julia’s husband, father and brother are all fighting and she is currently living in a small flat with lots of other Ukrainians in Piancenza in Italy after escaping the conflict, and is now wondering what to do next.

The Lochaber initiative comes in the week it was announced that UK householders are to be offered £350 a month to open their homes to people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

The Homes for Ukraine scheme will see people able to nominate a named individual or a family to stay with them rent-free, or in another property, for at least six months.

Speaking of his friend, Julia, Mr Smith added: ‘She is looking to come to the UK or Ireland where she hopes to be able to work to support her son and mother. She was a marketing manager, but is willing to do anything. She has a lot of friends in similar situations.’

Mr Smith added that after suggesting the idea of seeking empty local properties over the course of the last few days, he had received a substantial amount of interest from people keen to help.

‘There’s been a lot of interest. But I think this will have to be done on a case-by-case basis, matching up people with specific accommodation and jobs,’ he said.

He also mentioned the probable requirement for a dedicated co-ordinator/co-ordinators of any such local scheme and added: ‘I feel that with it we can find accommodation, we will be able to find childcare and jobs, and generally support these people without them becoming a burden, which they don’t want to be, until they can return to their lives.

‘We have offered up our caravan, I also have several job offers and some landowners considering putting caravans etc on land.

‘It might be difficult to put whole families into people’s houses in the long term, but if accommodation can be found, larger houses with space, estate houses, holiday lets, etc, at least some solutions might be possible up here.’

Lochaber councillor Allan Henderson (Caol and Mallaig Ward) said he felt there was a lot of merit in Mr Smith’s initiative.

Lochaber councillor Allan Henderson says doing nothing about the Corran Ferry is not an option. NO-F48-Allan-Henderson
Lochaber councillor Allan Henderson. 

‘There is a lot of pressure on council housing and it would clearly be wrong to disrupt the housing list as many have waited years for a cherished home and the council has a duty of care to provide,’ explained Councillor Henderson.

‘However, there are certain hard-to-fill local authority houses in places where work opportunities do not present and, with the right support, I am sure they would be useful for temporary accommodation to put a roof over the heads of refugees.

‘As the council does not have a list of private accommodation, any initiative by volunteers would be welcome to ascertain available private accommodation, whether that is conventional housing or cabins.

‘Lochaber certainly has a lot of second homes which would neither impact on tourism, or the housing register. It will be interesting to see the result and hopefully give us an opportunity to extend our normal Highland welcome to those in dire need.

‘I was brought up with neighbours being men known as displaced persons from Balkan countries, who helped plant the forests on the shore of Loch Eil and were housed in wooden huts at Fassifern. They were a very welcome part of the community.’

The Highland Council last week unanimously agreed a motion to’ recognise the heroic struggle of the Ukrainian people’ by granting the Freedom of the Highlands to the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Members also agreed that the council will engage to help develop the government sponsorship scheme being proposed, which will build on current programmes and structures already in place to support refugees and migrants.

Meanwhile, Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), which represents rural businesses, said more than 40 estates have now volunteered to help those fleeing war and arriving in Scotland.

SLE said it had written to the Scottish Government and expressed its willingness to assist and would also be providing details to the UK Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Any readers wishing to contact Mr Smith to discuss offering vacant accommodation can contact him via the Lochaber Times at editor@lochabertimes.co.uk