Shared grief, search for justice unites fathers of some of those killed in downing of Flight PS752
More than a year since Iran's military shot down the passenger plane, search for answers continues
This weekend marks the beginning of Persian New Year, a time when Canada's Iranian community typically gathers among family and friends to celebrate the beginning of spring.
It's meant to be a time of renewal. But for one group of fathers, it marks a renewed sense of pain, as they enter another year without their wives and children who were killed in the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752.
"When you lose somebody, for example, in our culture …. you just do the burial and the memorial ceremony in two or three days, and that's over. You go home, you have closure and you just grieve," said Hamed Esmaeilion, whose wife Parisa Eghbalian and nine-year-old daughter, Reera, were killed on the flight.
"We did the burials. We did the memorials. But we have no closure. We have no idea what has happened ... that fateful morning."
On Jan. 8, 2020, all 176 passengers aboard Flight PS752 from Tehran were killed when Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot the plane down over the city with two surface-to-air missiles. Of those victims, 138 had ties to Canada.
WATCH: UN expert says Iran broke international law after downing of Flight PS752
Iran initially denied responsibility for the crash, but later said its military mistakenly shot the plane down after it was "misidentified" as a "hostile target." Canada's Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has repeatedly requested full access to Iran's investigation of the crash, but has been denied. On Thursday, the head of the TSB said Iran's final investigation into the crash failed to prove that the passenger jet was shot down in error.
Meanwhile, families of the victims say their relatives' belongings were looted from the crash site, and that they have faced threats and intimidation following the incident. Multiple families told CBC News they believe the threats are coming from people close to the Iranian regime.
Still, they continue to fight for answers.
Through a group called PS752 Justice, Esmaeilion and other families are working to hold those responsible for the crash accountable.
United by grief
"You know, I was an ordinary person…. But now I'm running from one interview to another one to just not let this story … be forgotten," Esmaeilion, who lives in Richmond Hill, Ont., told CBC's The Current.
"That's the reason that I'm alive — and I'm not alone. There are other fathers like me."
Shahin Moghaddam is one of them. The Nobleton, Ont., man lost his wife, Shakiba Feghahati, and his nine-year-old son Rosstin in the downing of the plane.
Esmaeilion and Moghaddam first met at memorial services for each other's families last year.
Now, they're bonded for life by the inexplicable pain they share. And they've met other fathers along the way.
"We didn't even know each other's name. But this tragedy actually has made us very close friends," said Mahmoud Zibaie, who used to live in Toronto but has since moved to Ottawa.
His wife, Shahrzad Hashemi, and 15-year-old daughter, Maya, died in Tehran.
"We have learned how to share our stories, how to share our grief, tears, sorrows and even our smiles sometimes," Zibaie said.
Esmaeilion remembers meeting Mahmoud for the first time at the memorial service for Mahmoud's family in Richmond Hill, Ont. Esmaeilion had been waiting in line to meet him when Mahmoud walked straight up to him instead.
"We hugged and he whispered in my ears, 'You're the only person that knows my feelings,'" Esmaeilion said. "I can still remember [his] voice in my ears, the way [he] said it, that [he] didn't want anybody to hear that — just me."
But the first father Esmaeilion met was Alireza Ghandchi. His entire family was killed in the downing of the plane — his wife, Faezeh Falsafi, his 16-year-old daughter, Dorsa, and his nine-year-old son, Daniel Parsa.
He and Esmaeilion crossed paths while flying to Iran to retrieve their loved ones' bodies.
During the trip, Ghandchi noticed that Esmaeilion had been speaking with the BBC, and told him that he wanted to speak with them, too.
"He said to me … 'I'm sure they have attacked the airplane,' " said Esmaeilion. "And I was like, 'Really?' And he said, 'Yes.'
"That was the beginning of the friendship."
Searching for justice
The fathers say that each time they hear more news about the plane crash, it's like reliving the horror of that day all over again.
"The grief and the sorrow for this horrible tragedy is so huge, I can still feel the anguish and the pain that actually cut my heart … on the first day," said Zibaie. "It's like a wound that each time you look at it, you remember those horrible moments."
For Esmaeilion, it's like the plane is crashing right into his home, he said. Despite the pain, the fathers are unified in their goal to seek justice and to find answers about what happened to their families. The fathers have started a parliamentary petition asking the Canadian government to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist entity.
Ghandchi said it's not a job, but his duty as a father.
And Esmaeilion agrees.
"You know, when we started this, we said to ourselves, what is important here is just a journey for justice — not getting justice at the end," said Esmaeilion.
"I told my wife and my daughter, I said, 'Parisa, Reera, I will fight. And one day I may get to justice, and I may not. Both ways, I'm going to come and tell you. And I'm not there yet.'"
Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. Her documentary is called Fathers of Flight 752.
Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.