British Columbia

'There is always that void': Families of Flight 752 victims still grieving, searching for answers

It's been one year since Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down in the skies over Tehran with two surface-to-air missiles from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Families say the Iranian government has done the bare minimum when it comes to accountability.

One year after plane was shot down killing all on board, families say Iran hasn't been held responsible

Kimia Pourshaban Oshibi, 20, lost both of her parents when Ukraine Airlines Flight 752 was shot down by Iranian forces on Jan. 8, 2020, after taking off from the Tehran airport. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dressed in black, Kimia Pourshaban Oshibi projects calm thoughtfulness — and hard-won wisdom that seems too great for a 20-year-old — as she reflects on the one-year anniversary of her parents' death. 

Her mother Firouzeh Madani and father Naser Pourshaban Oshibi, were both aboard the ill-fated Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down by Iranian forces as it took off from Tehran in the early morning hours of Jan. 8, 2020, killing all 176 people on board. 

On board were 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents and 53 others who were on their way to Canada, via Kyiv, that fateful day. Many were university students, some doctors, engineers or newlyweds returning from holidays. 

At least 15 people on that flight had ties to B.C. 

"All of our lives, as families and survivors of this incident, have changed," said Pourshaban Oshibi.

"We are now different people, we have different sentiments, different life routines, because when you lose someone so close to you, they're always in the back of your mind ... there is always that void," she said. 

A family selfie in Vancouver. Firouzeh Madani (centre) and Naser Pourshaban Oshibi (right) came to Canada to provide greater opportunities for their daughter Kimia (left). (Submitted by Kimia Pourshaban Oshibi)

Pourshaban Oshibi had gone to Iran with her parents for a two-week visit in late 2019. She came back a few days earlier to attend classes at Simon Fraser University where she is an undergraduate student. 

Now in the last year of her bachelor's degree, she is pursuing medical school with a goal of eventually working in the Downtown Eastside in the field of emergency psychiatric medicine. She's following in the footsteps of her parents, both doctors, who were unable to practice in Canada because their foreign credentials weren't accepted here.

"People at my age struggle to find their place in the world, [this] has made it more clear for me what my place in the world is, that's what keeps me going partly," she said. 

WATCH | Oshibi talks about coping with the loss of her parents:

20-year-old daughter speaks about coming to terms with her parents' death one year after the downing of Flight 752

2 years ago
Duration 1:06
Kimia Pourshaban Oshibi says she knows they're gone, but no one could have imagined the commercial plane being shot down.

Keeping herself immersed in her studies, sports and cooking has been key to passing what has been a difficult year, compounded by the pandemic. 

"One year can be very long, they say the first year goes by the slowest. I don't think for us, the families, that is necessarily true. The grief that we feel is sort of akin to the existential crisis of the pandemic. It's not just regular loss or grief, it's also part of the change, the blow to our world view, it's hard to cope ...  One year is also, as someone going through grief, to say to yourself, I made it through one year," she said. 

But the search for answers and accountability from the Iranian government still remains.

WATCH | The stories of the people with ties to B.C. who were lost on Flight 752:

1 year later: Remembering the B.C. victims of Flight PS752

2 years ago
Duration 13:17
On Jan. 8, 2020, 176 people on board Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 died when the aircraft was downed by an Iranian missile. At least 14 of the passengers had ties to B.C.

Hoping for justice, but not optimistic

Arman Abtahi, who lost his older brother Mehran, is also searching for answers and justice. 

His brother, a 37-year-old postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, was researching how to remove micropollutants from water and had designed a wastewater management facility in Iran. 

"He was truly kind and caring. He was obsessed with environmental issues," said Abtahi.

His brother had gone to Iran to celebrate his first wedding anniversary with his wife, after she was denied a visa to visit Canada. 

Arman Abtahi's older brother Mehran was on the ill-fated flight. He says after one year there is still no justice. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"It was a tough year," recalls Abtahi, "COVID particularly made everything even harder, made it even lonelier." 

It has been difficult for families to get together and has left his parents who are still in Iran unable to seek professional counselling.

"It's been a year since the tragedy and we haven't had any closure. We are not even close to justice and I'm not optimistic about it," said Abathi. 

Mehran Abtahi pictured on the B.C. coast in an undated photo. Abtahi, 37, was a passenger on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 when the plane was "mistakenly" shot down by a Iranian missiles after taking off in Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020. (Submitted by Arman Abtahi)

Both Abtahi and Pourshaban Oshibi say they're grateful for the work the Canadian government has done in trying to get justice and accountability from Iran, but say Canada's role is limited by circumstances. 

"They don't answer to the families, why would they answer to foreign countries they don't have relations with?" said Abtahi. 

Canada doesn't have access to the crash site or the evidence gathered by Iranian authorities. But it has created its own team to piece together the sequence of events.

Former federal cabinet minister Ralph Goodale is the prime minister's special adviser on the destruction of Flight PS752. He said Canada is fact-checking Iran's version of events because it has good reasons to doubt Iran's credibility. 

Iran originally denied any responsibility for the crash. Only after mounting evidence did it admit its military "mistakenly" shot down the passenger plane.

Belongings never returned

Regime officials barred the families from planning their own funerals and arranged state ones instead.  This was the case for Abtahi's brother. 

"That was really hard, because we knew they were responsible for my brother's death and still they were in our lives. We were seeing them, we still see them everyday on TV bluffing," said Abtahi. 

His brother's wedding ring was never returned. 

"My mom was really looking for that ring as a memory for her. But we didn't have anything, we didn't have his luggage, his cellphone or laptop. Nobody had the cellphones. They just bulldozed everything after the crash," he said. 

WATCH | Abtahi says his family didn't get back any of his brother's belongings:

Family unable to hold a proper funeral or retrieve belongings

2 years ago
Duration 1:11
Arman Abtahi talks about the challenges of holding a funeral for his brother Mehran while hoping for any keepsake from the wreckage.

It was the same for Pourshaban Oshibi. The only items returned were her mother's credit card and medical association card. The rug they had bought as a family, the many laptops and cellphones, never returned.

"They do have sentimental value, but the difficulty and frustration is in that you know they have been found, so first of all, the deceit and then ... just why?"

The road to justice is a long one. Iran said it has set aside $150,000 in compensation for each victim's family. But the families say they haven't received it nor is monetary compensation a priority. 

"That is the least of our demands, we want justice first to be served," he said. 

True justice for him would be if Iran was tried in international court, as he doesn't trust the Iranian regime to hold itself accountable.

Pourshaban Oshibi said Iran has not made amends.

"So far they have adhered to the bare minimum. But there is a difference between bare minimum and doing a professional honest investigation and I think Iran is far away from that," she said. 

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