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Why were so many Canadians on the plane that crashed in Iran?

With the end of winter break for schools and limited travel options between Iran and Canada, 138 passengers travelling to Canada up on a Ukraine International Airlines flight to Kyiv that crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 176 people on board.

Limited travel options contributed to loss of Canadian lives

Delaram Dadashnejad, 26, was studying nutrition at Langara College. (Ksenia Ivanova)

The end of winter break for schools and limited travel options between Iran and Canada contributed to the loss of Canadian lives on board a flight bound for Kyiv that crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran, according to a spokesperson for the Iranian Canadian Congress.

All 176 people aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 were killed early Wednesday morning, including 138 passengers travelling to Canada, many of whom were students, researchers or lecturers with ties to schools across the country. 

"Unfortunately, because of sanctions, there are not many options available to the Iranian-Canadian community to travel to Iran, and the ones that are available are not very affordable," said Younes Zangiabadi, research director and board member of the ICC. Sixty-three of the dead were Canadian citizens. 

Canada broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012. There are no direct flights between Canada and Iran, which means passengers have to use connecting flights. They would have had no choice but to take the longer but most affordable route through Kyiv, Zangiabadi said. 

"We hear that most of the people, especially the students, had gone to Iran for winter holidays and were just coming back now as school is starting," said Zangiabadi. Iranian Canadians frequently choose this time of year to visit relatives in Iran while children are out of school, he said. 

"I personally know nine people who were on the flight, and they all went to Iran for holidays and they were just getting back — which unfortunately never happened."

A close friend confirmed this to be University of Toronto student Mojtaba Abbasnezhad, a victim of Wednesday's crash. (Mojtaba Abbasnezhad/Facebook)

On the 2016 census, 210,405 Canadians list Iran as their ethnic origin, but Zangiabadi pegs the number at closer to 300,000 now, a little less than one per cent of the population of Canada.

"Our Iranian Canadian community have long requested the Canadian government to establish a direct flight between Canada and Iran," he said.

The ICC discussed this with federal Transportation Minister Marc Garneau but never reached a conclusion, he said.

U.S. travel ban also limits options

Travelling via U.S. flight hubs is not an option because Iran is one of the countries subject to a travel ban issued by U.S. President Donald Trump shortly after he took office in January 2017. 

Although the ban faced several court challenges, it came into full effect in December 2017.

Initial reports from multiple sources and community members indicated that as many as 30 people connected to the Edmonton community died in the crash. So far, CBC News has been able to confirm 13 names from that community, as well as two with ties to Calgary.

Samira Bashiri, left, was a researcher at the University of Windsor, where her husband, Hamidreza Setareh Kokab, right, was a PhD student in mechanical engineering. (Submitted by Sahar Nikoo)

"There's no real words for it. It's devastating. We lost about one per cent of our entire community on that flight," said Payman Parseyan, who knew many people from the city's Iranian community who perished in the crash. "Every one of our community members was touched in one way or another when that plane went down."

"Many gave up a life that they had in Iran, the people that they knew, they worked tirelessly to get to the place where they were, and to lose it like this, it's terrible."

WATCH | Payman Parseyan talks about the loss to the Iranian community in Edmonton

Edmonton's Payman Parseyan reflects on the 'devastation' after learning people he knew were killed in the Iran plane crash 7:08

Among the numerous members of the academic community who died in the crash are 10 University of Alberta students, faculty members or alumni, said David Turpin, president of the university in Edmonton.

"Everyone on campus today is mourning the incredible loss of talent. These are wonderful people who have already contributed so much to our institution and had such bright futures ahead of them," said Turpin.

The university has close to 500 Iranian students on campus at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

"We are in mourning and offer our complete support and condolences to the family, friends and all of those affected."

Canada a popular destination for Iranian students

Data compiled by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, a non-profit group of Canadian educational institutions, found that students from Iran comprise two per cent of Canada's international student population, numbering around 11,000 as of 2018.

It also said that in 2017-2018 Iranian students were the second-fastest growing group of international students in Canada.

In addition to the University of Alberta, the institutions that have confirmed that their students, faculty or recent grads were on board are:

  • University of Manitoba.
  • University of Waterloo.
  • University of Windsor.
  • University of British Columbia.
  • Western University.
  • University of Guelph.
  • University of Toronto.
  • McGill University.
  • Aviron Technical Institute.
  • Concordia University.
  • Dalhousie University.
  • St. Mary's University.
  • Langara College.
  • McMaster University.
  • Ryerson University.
  • Ontario Tech University.
  • University of Ottawa.
  • Carleton University.
  • Queen's University.

The University of Windsor said Wednesday that at least five individuals who appear on the passenger list are members of its student and research community. 

"The entire University of Windsor is heartbroken by this news and we extend our heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of everyone impacted by this terrible tragedy," said president Robert Gordon in a written statement.

Four University of Toronto students have been identified as victims of the crash.

"On behalf of the entire University of Toronto community, I want to say how deeply saddened we are, and how concerned we are for the families and friends of those who lost their lives," Meric Gertler, president of the university, said in a statement.

Likewise, Western University in London, Ont., confirmed it was aware of four students who perished in the crash, according to a statement from the president.

WATCH | Passenger describes half-empty flight back from Kyiv to Toronto:

Branab Bhardwha describes coming back to Canada on a Kyiv-to-Toronto flight that had more than 130 empty seats onboard. 0:20

Saint Mary's in Halifax said in a statement that two students in its Master of Finance program were on the flight manifest.

Also in Halifax, Dalhousie University confirmed in a statement that members of its community had also died in the crash but did not share names or numbers.

For Canada, the crash represents the largest loss of life involving an aircraft since the bombing of Air India Flight 182, which exploded over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland in 1985, killing all 329 on board, of which 268 were Canadian.

About the Author

Brandie Weikle is a senior writer for CBC News based in Toronto. She's a long-time magazine and newspaper editor and podcast host with specialities in family life, health and the workplace. You can reach her at brandie.weikle@cbc.ca.

With files from Reuters