Over the months that the Hampstead hoax has dragged on, a recurring question has kept popping up about one of the hoax’s originating voices, Belinda McKenzie: “What about Iran Aid?”
One of our regular readers, Fairly Sane, is better acquainted than most with Iran Aid, and was kind enough to put together a fascinating and very telling recollection of his dealings with the charity:
Iran Aid was a highly irregular organisation which was closed down in 1998 by the Charities Commission after refusing to allow its accounts to be inspected. Millions of pounds of donations disappeared into a foreign bank account and all the charities records were conveniently destroyed in a fire at its offices.
Most people at Hoaxtead probably know this much, and that Belinda McKenzie and her “husband” Esmail Vafa Yaghmaei were heavily involved (though they claim NOT to have benefitted personally from its funds). What might be hard to understand is how an obscure organisation could rake in an estimated £5 million a year.
The answer is that they did what Belinda McKenzie does best: latch onto vulnerable people and exploit them shamelessly. I know this from personal experience. As the events I am about to describe took place nearly 20 years ago, my memory may not be perfect, but I will attempt to write as accurate an account as I can.
In the early 1990s I was a fairly naive young man studying in Edinburgh. One cold day, on a windy corner in the New Town, I was stopped by a young woman in a head scarf. She asked me if I could help her and if I was interested in Human Rights. I was at the time very keen to become involved with political matters and therefore stopped to talk to her.
She carried with her a large photo album with leather effect covers which she opened to reveal a selection of the most horrific images of torture victims I had ever seen. I was stunned. When she asked me if I could make a donation to her charity which helped the victims of torture in Iran, I was quite willing to take out my cheque book and make a donation of £75 (which I really couldn’t afford).
When I arrived at my college later that day I obviously looked disturbed enough for a friend to enquire what was the matter with me. I told her that I had made a donation to charity; she said “Not to those people with the horrible photos!”
I must have given some details to the young woman in Edinburgh, as for years afterwards I received Christmas cards from Iran Aid. These usually contained a message thanking me for my support and had distinctive designs, usually of children of all nations holding hands around a globe, or doves rendered in batik.
On the 6th of September 1997, right in the middle of Princess Diana’s funeral service, I received a phone call: “I am phoning from Iran Aid, some of our representatives would like to call at your home to thank you personally for your support”.
I didn’t agree to that, I was already suspicious of what these people were about, but I did agree that they could call on me at my place of work one lunch time. A date was arranged, but I thought I should do some homework on Iran Aid before the meeting.
We had the internet at work and I was able to use it to look up the number of the Charities Commission. I made a phone call and asked if Iran Aid was a legitimate charity. The reply I got was, “Iran Aid is a registered charity.” But this was said in such a precisely phrased and weary manner that I wasn’t entirely reassured.
I worked in a small office in a northern town at this point; I was very busy and not very well paid. At lunchtime on the appointed day the office emptied and I awaited a knock at the door. When it came I was confronted by a pair of Middle Eastern gentlemen in suits and raincoats.
One was grey-haired and spoke very little, the other was younger, had an enormous moustache and was very chatty. They asked if there was a private office where we could talk. I showed them into the back office which was unoccupied. I took a seat behind a desk, and they carefully arranged themselves in office chairs between myself and the door.
After introductions the first one began his spiel: “Thank you so much for your donation. Now to continue our work, could I ask you to commit to a regular donation of just £3,000…”
Unbelievably, up until they arrived, I had thought about making them a further donation for their humanitarian work—but my mind was changed fairly quickly. “We work to protect the children of political dissidents … these children need to be hidden from the Iranian state.”
From a clear plastic folder he starts producing photos of children, probably of primary school age. The images are grainy, the children are in nondescript settings, with white walls and slightly tarty furnishings, which could have been a house in Tehran, but might just have easily been Benidorm or Salford.
I protested that I really could not afford to spend that sort of money; he replied, “Why not just half of that, £2,000, the children really need your support.” I noted early on that his grasp of mathematics was decidedly rum. “We have a supporter who is a single mother who has taken on a second job to help the children.”
He then produced a second plastic folder; this contained letters to the children written by charity supporters. It struck me as odd, firstly that he had showed me the photos of the oh-so-secret and vulnerable children without really knowing who I was, and that he should also show me a folder full of what was effectively other people’s private correspondence.
Many of the letters contained photographs of the donors, they were in the main elderly ladies. Bartering over the amount I could afford to donate continued, division by two usually resulting in two-thirds of the original sum, and the younger mans approach began to get decidedly weird.
“See the little ‘x’s this lady has put on her letter, these are kisses—and the little hearts, they are toffee kisses…” He leaned close then stopped, probably seeing my look of horror in response to his inappropriate sexual advance. I was in a position where I physically couldn’t escape; it seemed the only way to get rid of this pair of “charity collectors” was to give them what they wanted.
I signed a standing order for £200 and they were off like a shot! My boss was nearly mown down by them as he returned to work. “WHO THE HELL WHERE THEY?” he asked. I told him they were charity collectors, “Charity collectors my foot, THEY ARE BLOODY CROOKS!”
I changed my bank account details before any money could be withdrawn. I phoned the Charity Commission to make a complaint; the weary-sounding man I had first talked to explained that there were a lot of complaints about Iran Aid and their methods “and we don’t know where any of the money is going to.”
My father has contacts in the Police Force and I made a full and detailed statement to an officer who was particularly concerned about the number of elderly ladies who appeared to be victims of this organisation.
After that I heard nothing, apart from receiving the odd card from Iran Aid, which quickly found itself in my bin. Whatever, if anything, Iran Aid did as a charity, its fundraising methods were nothing short of intimidation and extortion.
It was only more recently when I discovered that Belinda McKenzie was involved with this charity, and with several hoaxes which exploited vulnerable people, that I felt I should revisit my own experiences.
Fairly Sane, we very much appreciate you telling your story. It’s a compelling glimpse into the charity, and says something about the lengths to which Belinda has been prepared to go in pursuit of funding for her various ill-fated ventures.