Canada

'I still don't believe that it happened': Family, friends mourn Iran plane crash victims

Family and friends mourned the 63 Canadians, as well as Iranian students at Canadian universities across the country, who were killed in the deadly plane crash in Iran.

Canadians and students in Canada made up many of the passengers on crashed airliner

Parisa Eghbalian, left, Reera Esmaeilion, centre, and Hamed Esmaeilion. Eghbalian and her daughter Reera were both killed when Flight PS752 crashed near Tehran early Wednesday. (Madeline McNair/CBC)

On Wednesday morning, Richmond Hill, Ont., resident Hamed Esmaeilion called the Adrienne Clarkson Public School to explain why his nine-year-old daughter Reera would not be in class.  

"I usually call when she's absent, usually she's not. I told them that Reera will be absent forever," says Esmaeilion, overcome with emotion. 

Esmaeilion's daughter and his wife Parisa Eghbalian were among the 63 Canadian passengers on the Ukraine International Airlines flight that crashed in Iran. All 176 people on board were killed, including many students of Canadian universities.

The last conversation Esmaeilion had with his family, who were in Iran to attend his sister-in-law's wedding, had been a day earlier, as he prepared to go to work.

"I had a new haircut, I didn't want to show to them. I stayed in the dark and they couldn't see me. So I said 'Are you ready? Are you coming?' And they said, 'Yeah, in three hours we go to the airport.'"

He had been concerned about their flight because of the political tensions in the region, had been checking repeatedly if the plane had departed, and felt some relief when it seemed it had taken off safely. But hours later, he learned on the BBC website that the plane had crashed, and there were no survivors.

WATCH: 'I still don't believe that it happened'

Husband grieves wife and daughter killed in Iran crash. 2:08

"The first thing that comes to your mind is that you don't believe that. I still don't believe that it happened," he said.

He is heading to Iran to identify his family's remains, although initially, he had wanted their bodies returned to Canada.

"Then I said no. My mom and my mother-in-law, they have rights too. So I have to go back and share the grief."

Esmaeilion and his wife shared a dental practice in Aurora and had met in university in Iran before arriving in Canada in 2010 when Reera was just six months old.

He described his wife as a "wonderful woman," a perfectionist whom he would learn from every day, and a role model for their daughter.

As for Reera, "she was amazing … the best ever," talented in sports, particularly soccer, and spoke three languages: English, French and Farsi.

VIDEO: 'My heart is broken': Windsor family mourns loss of couple killed in plane crash in Iran

"I had to force her to play piano every day. 'Reera, you have to play 30 minutes,' he would say to her. 'No dad, it's 25 minutes,' she would respond, because he had Googled that nine-year-olds are supposed to practise for 25 minutes.

"Very hard to recall all those memories," he said.

Ghanimat Azhdari

For University of Guelph associate professor Faisal Moola, his plan on Wednesday was to pick up his PhD student Ghanimat Azhdari from Pearson International Airport in Toronto and head back to school, where they would prepare for their trip to Newfoundland and Labrador in a couple weeks. 

Azhdari, who was working toward her PhD in social and applied human sciences, was an expert in participatory mapping — spending time with Indigenous peoples, collecting their and traditional knowledge about their territories. The two were to begin a project with Indigenous peoples in Atlantic Canada.

Instead, on Wednesday, Moola was devastated to learn that Azhdari had been on the doomed flight. 

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

Azhdari herself was a member of the Qashqau tribe in Iran, and had done a lot of work in the country advancing the rights of Indigenous peoples. Just a day earlier, she had shared pictures with Moola, from her home in Iran, photographs of forests, trees and rivers and all sorts of examples of the nature of her traditional territory.

"I've got beautiful photographs that she just sent me of her sitting, drinking tea with the elders and the women and other community members."

She had travelled back to Iran to visit her family, including her fiancé, whom she hoped to bring back to Canada. Before Iran, she had been in Montreal, where she was representing Indigenous peoples in the negotiations there for a new global treaty on the conservation of nature.

She was also a member of the ICCA Consortium which promotes the recognition of and support to Indigenous peoples. 

"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 organization said in a statement. 

That statement, said Moola, was a reflection of Azhdari's significant contribution to international policy around the protection of nature and the enormous loss for Indigenous people around the world.

Moola described his student as a "firecracker" who had the ability to command people's attention through a very strong personal narrative.

Among her remarkable qualities, was her real clarity of purpose in life, he said.

"She really understood that with the PhD, she would then have the credibility and the influence that she deserves in terms of impacting these global negotiations."

Parinaz and Iman Ghaderpanah 

Torontonian Hosein Ammoshahi woke up around 3 a.m. ET on Wednesday and happened to check his phone. He said he realized the list of passengers on the plane was out and something told him to check the names.

The list was sorted alphabetically, and he could see his friends' names together, meaning there was very little chance he was making a mistake. And when he looked at the birthdates, he was 100 per cent sure it was them.

"And I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Iman and Parinaz's names together on the list. And I couldn't sleep since then,"  Ammoshahi said.

Iman and Parinaz Ghaderpanah were volunteers with the non-profit Iranian-Canadian group Tirgan. A fellow community volunteer said the pair were 'deeply in love and both were very active in community affairs.' (Submitted by Houtan Seirafian)

"I've been crying every hour or so."

He described the married couple from Toronto as very energetic, "a lovely couple" who had come to the country about a decade ago.

They were active members of the Iranian-Canadian community, volunteers with the non-profit Iranian-Canadian group Tirgan and helped fundraise for the organization, Tirgan spokesperson Mehrdad Ariannejad said. 

Ariannejad had worked directly with Parinaz and called her "energetic, positive, warm and very dedicated. She and her husband were deeply in love and both were very active in community affairs."

She worked at the Royal Bank of Canada while Iman was self-employed and worked in the mortgage industry, Ariannejad said.

"Everybody loved them, everybody is mourning," Ammoshahi said. 

"I can't think of any other event at this scale that has touched so many people," he said. "I go on my Facebook and Instagram and almost every friend I know here has lost a friend or a family member."

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp, Ioanna Roumeliotis and Simon Dingley