Toronto

'It is heart wrenching': Tears flow at vigil to honour GTA victims killed in Iran plane crash

Friends, family, city councillors and members of the community could not hold back tears during a candlelight vigil Thursday evening in honour of Toronto-area victims of the Iran plane crash that killed all 176 people on board.

More victims with ties to Toronto, including mother and 2 kids, identified Thursday

A woman cries as she lights a candle at the North York Civic Centre in Toronto Thursday evening where a vigil was held to mourn the lives lost in this week's plane crash in Iran that killed all 176 people on board, including 138 people on their way to Canada. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Friends, family, city councillors and members of the community could not hold back tears during a candlelight vigil Thursday evening in honour of Toronto-area victims of the Iran plane crash that killed all 176 people on board.

The mood at the North York Civic Centre was solemn as the names of the more than 30 residents of the GTA who were among the dead were read out at the start of the vigil.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said Wednesday that 138 of the passengers on board Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 were headed to Canada; 63 were Canadian citizens.

Majid Jowhari, MP for Richmond Hill, sobbed openly as he spoke about a father who lost his eight-year-old son and his wife in the crash.

"It is heart wrenching," Jowhari said through the tears.

"He was reiterating that they worked hard over the last eight years to build their lives. It was only after that, that they went to Iran to share the joys of their success. They did not come back. It's not fair; it's not right. We don't deserve that."

'A huge impact on us'

Jowhari said this week's event has affected communities all across Canada.

"We have lost a lot of young individuals. This is a huge impact on us. This is a big hit for Canada," Jowhari said.

"Let's come together. Let's stay strong. This is the time for us to unite."

The crash sent shock waves across Toronto or "Tehranto," as the city is dubbed by many people of Iranian descent living in the city. 

About 100,000 Iranians live in the GTA. It is the second-largest Iranian community outside Iran, surpassed only by Los Angeles.

Zeynab Asadi-Lari was identified as a victim of Wednesday's plane crash along with Mohammad Hossein Asadi-Lari. She was described as a kind person who spoke highly of her loved ones. (Zeynab Asadi-Lari/Facebook)

Elnaz Morshedi, a University of Toronto student, paid tribute to her friend Zeynab Asadi-Lari who, with her brother Mohammad Asadi-Lari, died in the tragedy.

"They were both leaders in U of T School …They moved here six years ago and from then they started working on mental health," Morshedi said.

"Zeynab by herself faced problems, and they [rise] up to help other people. They started a non-profit and they helped other students. They mentored them to have a better life.

"I know they are gone but the least we can do is to continue the road to make their dreams true," Morshedi added.

A vigil was held Wednesday night at U of T to honour the victims. Several of the school's students were identified as among the dead. 

'I feel this incredible sadness'

Fiona Rawle, an associate professor at U of T who taught biology to Zeynab Asadi-Lari, remembers her as a kind, diligent student who was always seeking further opportunities and pushing to get better.

"As a professor, one of my greatest joys is watching students pursue their dreams, and I feel this incredible sadness that Zeynab won't get the chance to do that," she said. 

"What I can say to her parents and family is what we can do is just try not to forget." 

Toronto-area victims killed in the Iran plane crash were remembered during a vigil Thursday night. (Rozenn Nicolle/Radio-Canada)

Rawle says Zeynab made herself known in a biology class of about 1,000 students — both for her questions and her diligence in seeking extra guidance during Tawle's office hours.  

Zeynab was also the president of the school's newly formed STEM fellowship club, which pushed for increased learning opportunities for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 

"From what I saw, Zeynab was this incredible mix of [being] fiercely competitive with herself and driving hard in school, but then incredibly collaborative with other people," she said. 

The university issued a statement saying it was deeply saddened to see its students' names on the plane's manifest.

"The university's three campuses are united in mourning the loss of the victims and offering sympathy and condolences to their families and friends," said a U of T statement, noting it would provide more information in the coming days.

'We share your loss, we share your pain'

Speaking at the vigil, MPP Daisy Wai said it's especially sad to see that a lot of the victims are very young.

"I would like to say to the mom and the dad, to the siblings, to the friends, especially for those whose families passed away together, it is hard for us to even realize what's happened," Wai said.

"All I can say at this point, let's join together as a family. We know we are all going to miss them, but all I can say at this point, we are here in it together, we share your loss, we share your pain, it is hard but we are there for each other."

Thursday's vigil was held at the North York Civic Centre in Toronto. About 100,000 Iranians live in the GTA. It is the second-largest Iranian community outside Iran, surpassed only by Los Angeles. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

Doly Begum, MPP for Scarborough Southwest, represented the New Democratic Party at the vigil.

She calls on Canadians to pray for the many "precious" lives that were lost.

"May God help this community find peace and give us the strength to stand together," Begum said.

We mourn with you, we are with you … we will be there for you for anything that we can do."

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      More GTA victims identified

      The crash of the Ukrainian airliner in Iran early Wednesday resulted in one of the biggest, single death tolls involving Canadian citizens in recent times.

      The victims came from across the country, with roots in six provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

      CBC Toronto is still working to confirm the identities of other victims believed to have connections to the GTA.

      CBC News learned Thursday that four members of the same family, including a five-year-old girl, died in the crash.

      Vahid Emami identified his daughter Sophie Emami, 5, and his wife, Sahand Sadeghi, 39, as among those who died. The three lived together in their North York home. 

      His brother-in-law Alvand Sadeghi and sister-in-law Negar Borghei, both in their late 20s, were also killed in the crash. The pair resided in Toronto, but Borghei was studying in Montreal. 

      'I cannot stop crying'

      A close friend of a North York mother and her two children also told CBC Toronto Thursday that all three died in the crash. 

      Mahdieh Ghassemi, 38, and her two children Arsan Niazi, 11, and Arnica Niazi, 8, were confirmed to be among the dead. 

      Mourners attend an earlier vigil at the University of Toronto Wednesday for the more than 30 Toronto-area residents who were among the dead. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

      Reihaneh Vahedi told CBC Toronto Thursday morning that she and Ghassemi, an architect, had been friends for 12 years. 

      "Arsan was a gifted boy. He was talking [in] three languages and he liked airplanes," Vahedi said. "Arnica was really kind and gifted too ... She loved dancing, singing, acting and drawing." 

      Vahedi says she spoke to Ghassemi on the phone the day before the family's flight.  

      "We [were] close friends, we talked on the phone every day," she said.  

      "I cannot stop crying." 

      A full list of victims with ties to the GTA is available here.

      Numerous professionals from across the GTA are among the 138 victims who were headed to Canada when the plane went down, including dentist Dr. Farhad Niknam, who worked in the Toronto-area.

      "Words cannot describe how sad and heartbroken we all are. May they rest in peace," the Iranian Ontario Dental Association said in a statement.

      "We would like to extend our most heartfelt condolences to their families and loved ones." 

      Many victims in the Toronto-area were also students travelling back to Canada after the winter break, according to a spokesperson for the Iranian Canadian Congress.

      The community and many Canadians remain in mourning on Thursday. 

      Another vigil is expected to take place on Friday at the office of the Iranian Women's Organization of Ontario, near Sheppard Avenue East and Don Mills Road. 

      With files from Kirthana Sasitharan and CBC News

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