AS the Ukraine-Russia conflict enters a second year, Ukrainian refugees grateful for Scotland’s protection in a small Highland village are becoming intensely concerned over what the future holds for homes, schooling and employment.

In rural Strathpeffer, Ross-shire, Ukrainian Anna Yevtushenko carries memories of Russia’s military attack on February 24, 2022, that upturned life and forced her to leave for Scotland. “I had a house, was settled, was very happy with my husband and family – looking forward to travelling overseas for pleasure. Then it was all gone,” she says.

Yevtushenko, her close family and others are hoping the sanctuary they sought in Scotland from daily Russian rocket and drone attacks will turn into more fulfilling lives given little hope of returning to their Ukraine home.

About 35,000 Ukrainians have reportedly arrived in Scotland amid the crisis. Yevtushenko left her home 20km from Kyiv – Boyarka is a city of 34,000 and hosts one of the country’s main meteorological centres. “Everything is very dangerous,” she explains. “My father-in-law had panic attacks which left him in hospital for two months.”

In a contrasting setting, Yevtushenko is with her mother Lidiia Patsora and her 13-year-old daughter Victoria in the darkly historic Highland Hotel lobby in the genteel Strathpeffer spa village, far different from their city home. All three share one room in the hotel, under the Scottish Government’s Homes for Ukraine Scheme. They are grateful but it is not ideal.

Some 32 other Ukrainian guests, including children, have been accommodated for several months at the Victorian-era hotel set amid the upmarket mansions, hotels and guesthouses, a pavilion and a stylish square.

Other Highland centres and homes for Ukrainian refugees have been designated in nearby Inverness and the tourist town of Aviemore, but Strathpeffer is the most rural and smallest, with a local population of under 1500.

“The whole question of Ukrainians coming to Strathpeffer sneaked up on us unawares mid last year; few people in the village knew they had arrived,” says Ron McAulay, chairman of the village’s community council, a statutory body run by volunteers that have since helped deal with the sudden arrival of its guests from Ukraine.

“Actually, the Highlands has more Ukrainians than are accommodated in any other single region of Scotland,” adds Miranda Wharam, a member of the local community development trust. She offered to help after being contacted by a neighbour who had signed up as an individual refugee host; Wharam has since been the community liaison with Ukrainians housed in the Highland Hotel under the Scottish Government’s “super hosting” arrangements that have remained paused since last July.

“It’s true that our Ukraine people are worried and increasingly frustrated. Morale is quite low. We helped get some kids into school but there is a whole range of issues including health, understandings of culture and future housing that need to be resolved, as they meet the criteria for a longer-term stay in Scotland,” Wharam says.

McAulay expects the Scottish Government and Highland Council to set out a more comprehensive plan: “My sense was that the council’s resettlement team on this – while they’ve done very well – was too small and under-resourced.

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“They have to make arrangements for medical, dentistry and education support across the entire Highlands for these Ukrainians.

“And there are horror stories regarding holdups in the individual sponsorship scheme on visa applications and where they could live.”

McAulay and Wharam agree transport is a problem in rural areas like Strathpeffer. Guests have relied on the goodwill of a small army of local volunteers to be transported to various locations, including other towns and, surprisingly, a Ukraine post-war monument – helping them adjust and feel welcome.

“Our bus services are frankly pathetic. Many refugees needed to travel to college for English lessons but too early in the day to be transported under the bus schedules,” says McAulay.

STRATHPEFFER became famous for health-fortifying sulphurous springs in the 1800s – a draw for tourism, still its mainstream revenue. But it’s a new and unexpected level of hospitality for Anna Yevtushenko, her family and fellow Ukrainians.

“The people we meet here in Strathpeffer are very courteous, encouraging and kind,” Yevtushenko says as she struggles with her English which she is learning fast at college in Inverness. She spoke virtually no English seven months ago.

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“The Scottish Government thankfully offered us – my mum, daughter and me – visas in June last year and we thought we would go for just two months then return to Ukraine if the war was over. Of course, my husband stayed behind, but we three left by train through Poland and in 36 hours we arrived by air in Edinburgh during September,” she recalls.

By then, the number of those arriving from Ukraine was still growing several months after the Scottish Government paused its super sponsor scheme – while arrangements were chaotic.

“We slept in a tent when we arrived in Edinburgh; then we went by bus to Aviemore but there was no room at the hotel and the bus left without us. Finally, luckily, we arrived in Strathpeffer a day or so later and have lived here since,” Yevtushenko explains.

Her new anxiety is about the next steps to resuming normal life, as she and her family may qualify to stay in Scotland for up to three years under the UK’s resettlement arrangements. Yevtushenko looks to April when her visa expires as perhaps another harrowing turning point in life: “Just one day after we came here my daughter was making friends at the local school and she was singing and playing music. We hope she can go to school later in Dingwall and I can continue my English course at college in Inverness. But we are waiting for what happens.”

Such decisions will be made in Holyrood and Downing Street, amid budgetary pressures. But at the village level in Strathpeffer, McAulay remains uncertain: “I’m concerned people in the community are having to take on roles which the government should be providing; how can our residents keep providing transport on a voluntary basis?

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“People here have been incredibly generous including under the individual homes scheme.”

Strathpeffer residents have been generally sympathetic towards their new Ukrainian neighbours. “We barely see them, although one asked the way to the local park, using a translation app on his phone,” says Valerie Moffat, a long-time resident.

“I know there’s a lot of village volunteers and help from the British Red Cross but there should clearly be much more help as the Ukraine war seems without end.”

Valerie’s husband, Andy Moffat, goes further: “They are here for the long term and should be treated as British citizens.”

For him, the British and Scottish governments’ response should equal the British response to Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“My mother, her sisters and my grandmother were a Catholic family with a Jewish surname, and they escaped to London; the bottom line is that the Ukrainian refugees should have the same rights,” he says.

Andy and Valerie saw the plight of Anna and her family as cruel and demeaning given their continued residence in just one hotel room.

Ironically, Strathpeffer’s hotel and tourism industries have been reviving after the Covid pandemic lockdowns of the past three years, with hotel properties emerging from virtual closure and changed management, like the Highland Hotel where Anna and her family are staying. Other hotels have changed hands but remain shuttered, like the nearby Victorian-fronted Mackays Hotel with more than 50 vacant rooms, which some suggest could be used.

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VALERIE Moffat believes the Ukrainian families urgently need homes: “Long term, they need accommodation where they can live, sleep, cook and have access to schooling, colleges and work like everyone else.”

She suggested the UK Ministry of Defence has an answer with homes that were available to RAF Lossiemouth personnel now left empty.

McAulay sees Strathpeffer’s guests as positive for the wider community.

“I’ve had just one message from what I call ‘a krankie’, ridiculously worried about village safety,” he explains.

“Our Ukrainians all seem to have a hard work ethic and are adaptable. Several found jobs, including in the Highland Hotel. One lady was a senior finance executive in Ukraine with many transferable skills.”

Wharam plays a short video produced by Ukrainians themselves in English to help get around in the Highlands, adding: “It shows they are very committed.”

Over Christmas, Anna Yevtushenko, who ran a tourism business before the war, took the daring step of returning to Ukraine with her mother and daughter via Poland to see her husband, a roofing specialist, and her extended family.

“We were there a few days and then returned to Scotland,” she says. “Who knows about the future? We want to return home; but when will that be? Days, months … or maybe 10 years?”