As It Happens·Q&A

Grieving husband and father searching for answers 1 year after Iran shot down Flight PS752

Hamed Esmaeilion has barely had time to mourn his wife and daughter, and says the same is true for everyone who lost family members aboard Flight PS752.

'For [the] Iranian-Canadian community, it's like a disease. Everybody is sick, and they don't know what to do'

Hamed Esmaeilion, his wife Parisa Eghbalian and daughter Reera Esmaeilion in happy times. Paris and Reera were both aboard the Ukrainian Airlines flight shot down by Iran's Revolutionary Guard one year ago. (Submitted)

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Hamed Esmaeilion has barely had time to mourn his wife and daughter, and says the same is true for everyone who lost family members aboard Flight PS752.

That's because they've been so busy seeking answers — and justice — for their loved ones who were shot out of the sky by Iran's Revolutionary Guard exactly one year ago Friday.

The Ukrainian Airlines flight was felled by missiles just minutes after it took off from the Tehran airport on Jan. 8, 2020, killing all 176 people on board, many of them Canadian citizens or residents. 

Iran, which is leading the investigation, says it fired on the commercial plane by mistake. The flight was permitted to take off despite ongoing tensions between Iran and the U.S. The Iranian military had fired missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq hours earlier in retaliation for the Trump-ordered killing of an Iranian general. 

On Friday, the families held an online memorial to honour their loved ones. Esmaeilion, a Toronto dentist, lost his wife Parisa Eghbalian, and their nine-year-old daughter Reera. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Can I ask you, how you are remembering your wife and your daughter today?

We have a memorial right now going on our website, on the YouTube channel.

But for me, myself, just yesterday, I put a monument in the graveyard … When they installed yesterday, I could go there and cry — like after months not crying because I didn't have time to think about them. Yesterday, finally, I had some personal moments for myself.

I know you said elsewhere ... how you have been so focused on getting answers — not just for yourself, but for all those families who lost loved ones. So I know it's hard to feel those emotions, but I'm happy for you that you were able to have that moment when you could cry.

I think the majority of the family members are like me. Because I'm the spokesperson … I'm the front, but there's lots of family members who working in the back. And we have lost a lot of personal moments for this mourning and for this grief. And that's because of the case.

If it was a technical failure or something like that, you would say, OK, they will do the investigation and they will find out the results or the reason for the crash. But when we know that all of them, 176 people, were murdered in cold blood, and when you see the psychological war against families going on and on and on every day, it's very difficult.

So I'm not alone in this. You know, there are 140 families with me.

Four fathers of people killed on Flight PS752 in Iran last year embrace at a memorial for the victims in February 2020. Mahmoud Zibaie, Hamed Esmaeilion, Alireza Gandchi and Shahin Moghadam all lost their children and wives in the crash. (Samira Mohyeddin)

I know you've been leading this and trying to get answers, not just from Iran, but to … see other countries put pressure on Iran to tell you what happened, to do an investigation so you can know how all those people died, including your wife and your daughter. How much success have you had?

One year passed. And Iran has had enough time to come clean. Iran has had enough time to publish the final report or clear the criminal part of it or do negotiations.

That's why I'm impatient right now to see: what are the next steps?

That was three minutes' flight. And 365 days we suffered to know about three minutes. And that's not fair.

Do you think the international community is doing enough to pressure Iran to deliver the answers?

I don't think so. Look at ICAO, International Civil Aviation Organization, one of the organizations of [the] United Nations. When we talk to them, they say they have to stay neutral. 

But in my opinion, I don't want them to be a judge. I want them to be good police. When Iran breaches all these regulations, you have to address them at the moment they happen.

If you could ask questions of the International Civil Aviation Organization ... what's the most important question that you would put to them?

I had a meeting with them last week, actually, after one year crying for a meeting. We had a meeting with the president [Salvatore] Sciacchitano.

When I said to Mr. Sciacchitano that you are responsible for the safety of the skies … he says, no, we are not responsible. We are supporting [the investigation out of Iran].

[Editor's note: The ICAO said in a statement that it has "urged" the Iranian Civil Aviation Authority to comply with investigation standards, and that its goal is "to assure that this event receives a thorough safety investigation so that governments and industry can enhance all applicable predictive and preventative measures."]

To get an answer like that must just burn you. I mean, after everything you've done, what do you represent, all the countries who are trying to get the answers and to get that as a response.

When we talk to some authorities, they tell us that you get emotional or your families are emotional. We are not emotional. We don't talk about emotions. We talk about facts.

So I said, what kind of investigation [is Iran] doing? When they're intimidating the families, when they are harassing the families, persecuting them, you know, taking them to security agencies, what kind of investigation they're doing? And what are you doing here?

Esmaeilion says his wife and daughter were the most precious things in his life. (Tirgan/Facebook via The Canadian Press)

Can you just tell us a bit about your daughter Reera. She was nine years old.

Nine years, seven months and 16 days. And this cruelty is unjust to her and 28 children. It's unbelievable. 

They were coming back here to go to school the next day. I can't pass the schools. I just can't — people with their children hand-to-hand, going to schools — because of this.

I talked to her … teacher yesterday … and we were both of us, we were crying. Still crying. People [are] still crying. And especially for [the] Iranian-Canadian community, it's like a disease. Everybody is sick, and they don't know what to do.

What was Reera like?

Funny girl. Cute. Oh, the most precious thing I said I had in my life.

And if she was here today, probably [she would be], like, "Dad, you're talking too much!" [laughs] She was telling me all the time, "Dad, don't sing in the car!"

I was telling her, "You have to practise piano 30 minutes a day." And one day she brought me her iPad and said, "Dad, can you search for me for a nine-year-old how much time she has practise piano and research?" That was 25 minutes. And she said, "You see, it's 25 minutes, not 30 minutes." So we had new regulations.

She was on top of things. And I so miss her that it's unbelievable. I just — I can't believe she's gone.

And Parisa, your wife, what was she like?

I knew her for 25 years. We were college sweethearts. And we were students in university in Tabriz ... studying dentistry together. And so she was my best friend for 20 years.

Four days ago, it was 20 years of marriage. But last year, 19 years and four days. We wanted to have a big celebration on the 20th. And you know, because of COVID-19, probably we couldn't have it. But that was the plan. For 20 years, wear your wearing suits and she wears her wedding gown, you know, just show Reera, and how we have changed. And she probably laughs at us.

Parisa was a very dedicated person, very good dentist, hardworking, knowledgeable person. And one of the things that really bothers me is that Parisa didn't know anything about Iran's attacks on the U.S. bases in Iraq. 

But I know she was checking Canadian news all the time. And if it was a travel advisory or was some warning for the passengers that the area is the conflict zone and don't fly, she wouldn't have. And you know, [the] majority of those passengers [wouldn't have been]? on that plane.

There's nothing you can do now about those regrets, Hamed. And I really appreciate that you'd share with us memories of Parisa and Reera. I just want to say, I hope the next time that we speak, it's because we're speaking about you finally getting the answers you so deserve to get.

Hopefully, hopefully. You know, there's a little light at the end of this tunnel and the rest of it is just darkness.

And without justice, without finding the truth, we won't rest. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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