Seventy-five years after arriving in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany, Max Block has helped an Iranian Jewish family gain asylum in the UK.
The Sinaei family have been helped by the entire Liverpool Jewish community as they struggled to survive without state aid when their application for asylum was turned down.
They fled Iran after their land was seized, their home demolished and a grandmother’s funeral was disrupted, with security guards destroying the coffin and kicking the corpse.
Farmers and cousins Youssef and Maryam Sinaei lived in a rural area of northern Iran, with their daughter Nazanin, 17, and son Parve, six.
They are the descendants of an Iranian Jew who had gone there during a goldrush and the family were the only Jews in the neighbourhood.
The couple had visited Tehran only once, when they went to the Iranian capital as 18-year-olds to marry in synagogue.
In recent years the family suffered increasing harassment, and when their house was demolished, Maryam’s mother collapsed with shock and died.
The incident at his mother-in-law’s funeral goaded Youssef into an angry response, deemed anti-Islamic by the authorities, and the family fled to Tehran, where they raised money to buy false passports to enable them to escape to the UK.
At a Reception Centre in Liverpool, the family were told they would have to move to Blackburn. But they preferred to stay on Mersyside where there was a Jewish community, even though that meant forfeiting their asylum seekers’ allowance.
They were given emergency accommodation above Harold House, the local community centre, which is where Dr Block discovered them after a memorial meeting for the victims of the Mumbai terror attack.
“I saw people taking food into the flat and I asked ‘What’s up?’ A family in distress, I was told.”
The Sinaei family had found it hard to communicate, with only daughter Nazanin able to translate from Farsi into English.
Dr Block arranged for a local Iranian Jewish friend to visit, and started to mobilise the local community to campaign on their behalf. Liverpool’s Jews responded generously, with food, furniture and English lessons. A local clothing manufacturer donated a suit for Youssef. The children were found places at Jewish schools. Then came the letter from the Home Office telling them that their asylum application had been turned down.
The Home Office argued that Jews were not persecuted in Iran, that there was a Jewish MP in the Iranian parliament, and that the maximum sentence faced by Youssef for his alleged crimes would be “only” five years. Max Block and other members of the Liverpool community helped the family research their appeal.
“At the appeal Youssef spoke through an interpreter and then I was the only witness,” said Dr Block.
“I told the judge that Nazanin had shown me on my computer pictures from Iran of a Jew hanging from the gallows. We presented evidence that Jews had been executed and arrested. I was almost too emotional to speak.”
The appeal was successful, and may now provide a precedent for other Iranian Jews.
“Now things are going well for the family,” said Dr Block, whose family fled Germany in 1934 when he was nine. “As an 84-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany, I was happy to help.”