EDMONTON—A newlywed couple. A family of four. Students returning from their winter break.
Edmonton’s small Iranian community was counting its losses in a state of shock Wednesday after a plane crash in Iran that left 176 people dead — including more than five dozen Canadians, many of whom had been travelling home to Alberta.
“More than anything, people are mourning,” said Pegah Salari, an active member of the city’s Iranian community. “We are still at that initial state of grief when everyone’s so shocked.”
The Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 was en route to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, when it crashed shortly after take off, killing all aboard. There were 63 Canadians on the flight and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 138 passengers were on their way to Toronto.
While a list compiled by the community pegged the city’s losses at 25 people, the Star has so far been able to independently confirm that 13 members of the local Iranian community died in the crash.
“The impact is so big, because of the large number of individuals involved, that it’s going to take some time for us to actually comprehend what actually happened,” Salari said.
“More than anything, it’s a sense of disbelief right now.”
Edmonton has around 4,300 people of Iranian origin, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada census, compared to about 95,000 in the Greater Toronto Area and 45,000 in Vancouver. At a Wednesday media availability, Reza Akbari, president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton, estimated Edmonton’s Iranian community is closer to 5,000 people, and up to 6,000 when students are included.
He said the University of Alberta has been a popular destination for Iranian students because it’s perceived as one of the top research universities in the country, specifically citing their engineering, energy and environment programs.
Masoud Ardakani, the University of Alberta’s associate chair of electrical and computer engineering, confirmed in an email that professors Mojgan Daneshmand and Pedram Mousavi were on the flight, along with their daughters Daria, 14, and Dorina, 9.
Daneshmand is listed as an associate professor in the engineering department at U of A, as well as Canada Research Chair Tier II in Radio Frequency (RF) Microsystems for Communication and Sensing. Mousavi worked in the same department as a professor in mechanical engineering.
Friend Nooran Ostadeian remembered Daneshmand and Mousavi as the “happiest couple” she had known. Ostadeian had known them since 2010 when she helped them find a home as a real estate agent when they moved to Edmonton.
“I want them to be remembered as a symbol of love, community members who did a lot … Great teachers for their students.”
Maryam Hajazi, who coached Dorina in a soccer program, remembers the girl as being intelligent and curious. She would frequently ask questions about techniques and how she could be the best player she could be.
“She most probably got the gene from her parents,” Hajazi said. “She was so smart, everyone liked her.”
The Calgary Board of Education, meanwhile, confirmed that Arshia Arbabbahrami was an international student in Grade 12 at Western Canada School, who was returning to Canada after spending the holidays with his family in Iran.
Principal Carma Cornea sent an email to students and families that said Arbabbahrami was active in track, as well as the swim and dive teams: “He dreamt of being a doctor and was a leader in our community who many students looked up to.”
Ramin Fathian worked in the same office as Nasim Rahmanifar, who was working on her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the U of A and was considering a second master’s or doctorate.
She had started the program in May 2019, and Fathian remembers how anxious and scared she was of Edmonton’s winter, having lived most of her life in Iran. He said their group of friends spent time together every weekend, frequently playing volleyball. Rahmanifar was always eager to go back to Iran.
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“She was super excited to get back home to visit her family … She missed them a lot,” he said.
Also on board were young newlyweds Arash Pourzarabi and Pouneh Gorji, of Edmonton. Payman Parseyan, an active member of the Iranian community, said they’d married days before boarding the plane.
Amir Samani, a graduate student in the same computer science department Gorji and Pourzarabi belonged to, said he remembers Pourzarabi going out of his way to help with his studies.
“I’m in big denial right now. I can’t understand what’s going through my mind,” he said. “I even check my phone to see, is he going back online again? Are we going to talk again?”
He said it was good having friends of Iranian ancestry at the university because there isn’t a huge Iranian community in Edmonton. He wasn’t able to go to the couple’s wedding, but had hoped to attend a small ceremony with friends upon their return.
Pourzarabi was working on a graduate degree in artificial intelligence at the University of Alberta, and his supervisor, Professor Michael Bowling, said the couple loved to spend their free time exploring new parts of Edmonton.
Bowling described Pourzarabi as “so bright.”
“Not just smart, which you have to be doing a graduate degree in artificial intelligence,” he said in an email, “but he brought a brightness to each meeting … particularly with his smile.”
Throughout the day, community organizations and members were co-ordinating vigils with hundreds expected to attend. On Wednesday night, mourners gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the Alberta legislature in Edmonton.
Salari said the high number of Edmonton community members on board likely had to do with sanctions and travel restrictions that Iranians have to grapple with when flying. There aren’t as many airlines flying to Iran and options are limited.
“For as long as I can remember, there was a few preferred airlines that would allow for people to travel with all the limitations that are on them,” she said.
Few members of Edmonton’s Iranian community in the city will be left untouched by the loss of life, Salari said.
Akbari, with the Iranian Heritage Society, said there will be a vigil held on Friday but the exact time and location was still being confirmed.
With files from Alex Boyd and Rosa Saba
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