Somber music as Iranian-Canadians gather to remember 2 Hamilton PhD students

Iman Aghabali and Mehdi Eshaghian were McMaster University engineering students.

Iman Aghabali and Mehdi Eshaghian were McMaster University engineering students

Iranian-Canadians signed books of condolence for the two McMaster University engineering students killed in a plane crash in Iran. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Mike Vahman didn't know what song he would play when he walked to the front of a vigil for Iman Aghabali and Mehdi Eshaghian, two McMaster University students who died in a plane crash in Iran. Instead, he picked a key — G minor — and played from the heart.

The Burlington violinist improvised a somber song for the crowd of about 200 Iranian-Canadians. He says he tried to convey the feelings in the room — shock, grief, and sadness. 

"I didn't know what I was going to play at all," said Vahman, who moved to Canada about 40 years ago. Then "I heard a few words from the speaker, the poems, and I played my reaction."

More than 200 people attended a vigil for two McMaster University students killed in a plane crash in Iran. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"Young people who are the future of Iran and Canada, and all of the world, they lost their lives."

The vigil Sunday was the second in Hamilton after Aghabali and Eshaghian, who were studying engineering, were on a plane believed to be hit by a missile on Jan. 8. So was Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabadi, who spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Health Sciences before leaving the university in 2018.

Negar Amedi, a 20-year-old McMaster biology student, organized the event, which was mostly in Farsi. The Iranian-Canadian community in Hamilton is tight knit, she said, and they all were impacted.

Guests signed books of condolences while organizers set up a slide show for the two McMaster University engineering students killed in a plane crash in Iran. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"Everyone was really in distress after we heard the horrible news," she said. But some people weren't able to make an earlier Jan. 10 vigil at McMaster, so she helped some local Iranian-Canadian business owners organize a second event in Convocation Hall.

The crash of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 is part of growing tensions between Iran and the U.S. Those tensions rose on Jan. 3 after an American drone strike in Iraq killed a prominent Iranian commander, Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was responsible for building up Iran's network of regional proxy armies in Iraq and beyond.

Iran fired missiles at two air bases housing U.S. and Canadian forces in Iraq. After initially blaming a technical failure, Iranian authorities said on Saturday that the country's military accidentally struck the Boeing 737-800. The jet carried mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians. 

Violinist Mike Vahman says he didn't have a song prepared before he played at the vigil. He just played from the heart. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Canada says it wants to take part in the crash investigation and help the families of the Canadians who died. On the weekend, Canada sent a team that includes consular officials and two members of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB).

In Hamilton, Aghabali and Eshaghian were PhD students in the Faculty of Engineering. Aghabali's work focused on hybrid vehicles, and Eshaghian focused on mechanical engineering with an interest in robotics.

As for Vahman, he moved to Canada about 40 years ago because of government persecution of people of the Bahá'í faith. "If we were not here," he said, "my children couldn't go to university."

But the plane crash has hit him and others deeply. He described seeing a news photo on the weekend of a child's shoe from the crash.

And with that, he said, "I really started crying."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

With files from Thomson Reuters