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The pharmacist who fled Ugandan dictatorship and became champion of north-east community

Vinay Ruparelia
Vinay Ruparelia

Vinay Ruparelia came to the UK at a time when he and other Asians were being expelled from Uganda by violent dictator Idi Amin.

Until the age of 18, when he moved to London, he had no access to study materials or recreational facilities at his school in Kampala.

But in spite of that disadvantage, he went on to become a pharmacist, charity champion and, since 2013, a deputy lieutenant of Banffshire.

The father-of-two, also an Honorary Sheriff of Grampian, Islands and Highlands, was made an MBE in recognition of his work with community enterprises and various charities in Banffshire in the Queen’s new year’s honours list.

That’s an accolade the 71-year-old could never have dreamed of more than five decades ago when fleeing his home country.

He said: “I grew up in Uganda and didn’t have access to facilities, either study or recreationally, to realise my ambitions.

“It was a pivotal time in my life when, aged 18, I was forced to leave Uganda due to the dictatorship of Idi Amin expelling British Indians from the state.

“I spent those early years in greater London studying pharmacy and, coming from a family of small traders, I fell straight into running a market stall in London’s Petticoat Lane to make ends meet.”

It was while studying at Chelsea College that the young pharmacist met wife Teresa, who was starting out her career path in the same vocation.

The pair worked in London until an advert offering up Portsoy Pharmacy for sale caught their attention in 1978. Despite never having visited the area before, they set up home in the town.

“We drove to Portsoy and decided there and then to make it home, develop the business and start a family,” he said.

The couple ran George Ellis Pharmacies in Banff and Portsoy, raising their two sons, Simon and Mark, in the village – both of whom now work overseas and have three sons of their own between them.

Since then Mr Ruparelia has used his skills, resourcefulness and time to make a positive and continuing impact on the local community and surrounding area.

He serves as chairman of Books Abroad, a Rhynie-based charity which sends donated books to schools in developing countries as well as organising visits to the schools for volunteers and supporters in the north-east.

He has also been involved with the Boyndie Trust, which provides work placements and training for unemployed adults with learning disabilities, and Portsoy Community Enterprise, which promotes the town’s heritage and history as well as being the driving force behind the annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival.

Mr Ruparelia’s experience as a pharmacist, supporting those with drug dependency issues, has also been a key motivating factor in his contributions to projects including Turning Point and Aberdeenshire Life Education Centre.

He served as director of the former, which supports adults with learning difficulties, substance misuse and criminal justice issues, for eight years.

And through his work as member and past president of Banff Rotary Club, he helped initiate the latter centre, which plays a key role in drugs and health education in local secondary schools.

“My work as a community pharmacist in Portsoy, Banff and Peterhead over 42 years has led me to become involved in a variety of projects and charities.

“All the different groups of people I think recommended me for the MBE are the ones that have been working with me for a number of years in these different guises,” Mr Ruparelia added.

“It was really nice to read their recommendations, really lovely.”

His business skills are credited with ensuring proper governance of any organisation he’s been involved with while his imagination and creative skills have helped them secure funding.

Now retired, Mr Ruparelia, who has family and friends spread across the globe from Canada to Africa, is adamant that the north-east, and in particular Portsoy, is home.

“It has been 40 years since we’ve been here,” he added.

“The time just disappears so quickly. It’s home here now. I don’t know where the years have gone.

“I am honoured to receive the MBE in recognition of my work with community enterprise and various charities in Banffshire and further afield.

“It has been pleasure and privilege to work with the community.”

The citation for his honour nomination highlights his “determination and entrepreneurial skills” which “led to him investing in and opening other shops in neighbouring communities”.

It reads: “He used this success to make a difference and his selfless generosity has been a hallmark of his approach to the community.

“Vinay has been especially passionate about supporting young people to become more aspirational and to have the confidence and skills to fulfil their potential.  There are several young pharmacists in the area who will credit Vinay as being an inspiration, mentor and encourager.

“He is a person who has made a positive difference to both individuals and his community – as well as across the globe through Books Abroad.

“He recognised the challenges he faced at school in Uganda and when he first came to the UK.  His response to these experiences and what he has achieved makes him inspirational and he has gained the respect of all.”

Books Abroad’s milestone shipment

Mr Ruparelia’s volunteers at Books Abroad are celebrating shipping donations to their 100th country this month.

The charity has sent more than four million books to 96 countries and shared the written word with 4,000 schools, libraries and groups over the past 38 years.

This month, the charity will celebrate reaching its 100th country when it ships containers to four different Caribbean islands.

Founder Vinay Ruparelia said: “It started in Banff when some teachers from Nigeria were visiting Banff Academy and saw entire sets of books being thrown away as new ones for a changed curriculum came in.

“They wanted to take them away with them and one of the English teachers at the academy started the programme to collect second-hand books and send them abroad.”

The charity is particular about which reading materials are sent though, focusing on educational and academic classics.

“Rather than sending piles of stuff, we have about 30 volunteers, mainly retired teachers, so we’re unique in that we’re selective about what we send,” Mr Ruparelia added.

“We have a warehouse filled with around 30,000 books at Rhynie so offer plenty of choice.”

The charity’s running costs, of around £50,000 per year, are met by around 35 trust funds which help pay for the shipment of 2,000 books, each year.

Meanwhile books donated which aren’t needed or suitable for sending abroad are sold in the shop on Banff High Street.

Last month, it gave away two free books to every local who passed through the door as part of a festive giveaway supported by Banff Rotary Club.