'Force of nature' Guelph PhD student killed in Iran plane crash

University of Guelph PhD candidate Ghanimat Azhdari is among 138 people headed for Canada who died Wednesday in a plane crash in Iran.

Researcher Ghanimat Azhdari remembered as 'a true force of nature' for work with nomadic peoples

Ghanimat Azhdari started studying for her PhD at the University of Guelph in September 2019. She was among the 176 people killed in a plane crash in Iran on Wednesday. (ICCA Consortium/Twitter)

PhD student Ghanimat Azhdari at the University of Guelph was one of 176 people killed in a plane crash in Iran Wednesday. Azhdari, 36, was doing research in the college of social and applied human sciences at the university, mapping and cataloging Iran's indigenous nomadic communities. 

She is one of four students from the region who died. A large number of students residing in Canada were killed in the crash. 

Late Wednesday the Prime Minister said 138 of the crash victims were headed for Canada

Azhdari was a member of an international group called the ICCA Consortium, which is made up of organizations that support Indigenous people and their lands. 

She had worked on projects documenting the lives and mapping territories of various nomadic communities in Iran, said the consortium on a tribute web page. 


"We are in utter disbelief and heartbroken at the sudden loss of such a beautiful young life — a true force of nature, and one of the ICCA Consortium's most cherished flowers," the consortium said in its statement.

Azhdari was a member of the Qashqai tribe in Iran and worked as a geographic information system specialist.

The consortium said part of her work saw her travel throughout Iran to visit and work with the nomadic tribes.

She started work on her PhD in Guelph in September 2019. 

Concerns over war

Associate professor Faisal Moola was Azhdari's adviser at the University of Guelph and called her "a firecracker." 

"She had this effervescent personality. She was small in stature but had the ability to command a room very easily largely through, not just the force of her personality, but this remarkable narrative that she was so generous in sharing," he told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

Moola said he burst into tears and hugged his son after learning of Azhdari's death Wednesday morning. He said he had just received emails from her, written before she boarded the flight.

"She wrote to me with great fear and trepidation about the possibility of war. She feared for her family and her friends that she would be leaving behind in order to travel to Canada to continue her studies," he said.

"I think she cared very, very deeply about her traditional territory and obviously doesn't want to see a conflict in Iran."

Moola says he would like to one day visit Iran and Azhdari's traditional territories and he wants to see the work she brought to his lab at the university continue.

"I'm absolutely convinced that her ideas around advancing and supporting Indigenous people and the protection of their traditional territories is critically important if we are going to protect the planet," he said.

Crash Wednesday

There were 63 Canadians who died after a Ukraine International Airlines plane crashed near Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew Wednesday.

Airline officials said most of the passengers were en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, where many had connecting flights.

A Ukraine International Airlines statement said it is working to confirm the cause of the crash.