If grief is a journey, this is the first painful step: searing heartache.
More than 2,500 people filled the Saville Community Sports Centre at the University of Alberta on Jan. 12 to remember the lives of 13 Edmontonians and 163 others lost when Ukrainian Airlines International Flight PS752 was shot down by a missile shortly after takeoff from Tehran. All 176 people onboard were killed in the Jan. 8 crash, including 57 Canadians.
The Edmonton victims were of Iranian descent, and their lives were recalled by family and friends at the memorial, which included Persian poetry and song. They were cherished as paragons of Iranian virtues – high education, patience, humour, and a welcoming spirit.
They were physicians, engineers and students. One couple had just been married. Another entire family was lost. Pedram Mousavi and his wife Mojgan Dansehmand – both engineering professors at the University of Alberta – were killed along with their daughters Daria, 14, and Dorina, 9.
Hossein Saghlatoon said he’s suffered other losses in his life, but the death of Mousavi hits harder. Mousavi was his professor through his PhD studies and after graduation and they were partners in a company with other engineers.
“He was more than a boss or a friend to me. He was like a father to me. He was an important part of my life here in Canada,” Saghlatoon said.
“I’m an immigrant and I left everyone and everything I knew or had … and he supported all the time all of us, every person who has been in his group. Everyone who, in any way, dealt with him he was always supportive. He tried to help us and we are missing him so much.”
“I’m not going to forget them,” Saghlatoon said. “No one is going to replace them. I’m just going to learn how to life without them, which is sad for me because he was a big, big portion of my life and that of anyone else who worked with him.”
The university is a particular draw for Iranian students, and the campus as a whole has come together in solidarity at this time, said Mona-Lee Feehan, the Catholic chaplain at the U of A.
“There’s a huge sense of loss, but there’s also a huge sense of pride at what has been happening on our campus, about the caring and people holding each other and people looking out for each other,” said Feehan, who is also campus minister at St. Joseph’s College, the Catholic college on campus.
“It’s been an amazing show of concern and compassion that crosses boundaries of race, culture and faith.”
Feehan added: “Things are created that are not the best for us, but we have the great capacity to choose good in all of those situations. In this instance, something bad has happened and we’ve chosen the good.”
The university memorial capped a week of remembrance, including a Jan. 11 memorial service at the Imam Hussein Islamic Society mosque, where many of the victims were regular worshippers. Amid the Muslim call to prayer, they hugged and shed tears. They paused at a memorial with photos of the victims and comforted each other in grief as they held tight to their strong Shiite Muslim faith.
“I don’t know what I would do without my faith,” said Mohi Mahmoudi, a PhD student at the University of Alberta who knew the victims and had initially planned to return to Iran over Christmas. She would have been on the ill-fated flight.
“We felt that we had lost everything after that news. It was not only friends, it was family. Our faith kept our hope that we can survive through this time,” Mahmoudi said. “We all saw their pictures and we all thought we might have been on the plane. We ask God to help them through this devastating time.
“It is really a great loss for the Iranian community.”
It was the largest single loss of Edmontonian lives since the 1987 tornado, and the worst air disaster in Canada since the Air India crash 35 years ago. Mayor Don Iveson, Premier Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at the Jan. 12 memorial.
In his role as consoler-in-chief, Trudeau called the crash a “Canadian tragedy.”
“While no words can ease the pain, the grief, the outrage, it is my sincere hope that you can find some comfort in knowing that all Canadians stand with you … that is what makes us strong,” Trudeau said, noting that he had a “gut-wrenching” meeting with families who spoke of their loss.
“This tragedy never should have occurred,” Trudeau said. “We will not rest until there are answers. We will not rest until there is justice and accountability.”
Trudeau promised a full investigation in the crash. After days of denial, Iran has admitted that the plane was mistakenly shot down with a missile amid hostile relations with the U.S. government.
Mahmoudi said the Iranian community was devastated when they heard the news.
Among the victims was Shekoufeh Choupannejad and her daughters Saba and Sara. The Edmonton obstetrician was well-known in the Iranian community and delivered some of their children.
“When everybody came here to Canada and needed to visit a doctor, she was there for everyone,” Mahmoudi said.
Most mosque members knew the victims personally and their violent deaths came as a shock, said Ali Zakerhaghighi, president of the Imam Hussein Islamic Society.
“For these individuals, there is no doubt that they are blessed,” Zakerhaghighi said. “Hopefully we can have the message of patience for their families and for their friends.”
“I would say the faith of knowing that there will be life after death and all we do here, for our very short time, is to actually seek the plans for the hereafter. There is no doubt that this tragedy was something that will really take time for us to not to be emotional about anymore, but there is no way that will forget these people.”
What’s particularly stinging for Iranian Canadians is that their own government was responsible for the tragedy, and they are collectively demanding an explanation after days of denial.
“You cannot imagine what we felt,” Mahmoudi said. “It was awful. We need to know who is responsible for this mistake. We really need to know. Their families, their friends really need to know, and we ask the government to tell us the whole truth. We deserve it.”
Asked if she will return to Iran after her studies at the University of Alberta are completed, Mahmoudi said she’s unsure.
Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith is among those expressing their condolences to the Iranian community which is mobilizing to help the victims’ families since the crash.
A Gofundme campaign has been launched to raise funds for an Edmonton-based funeral for the victims. It has surpassed its goal of raising $50,000. Organizers say most of the victims were students and any excess funds will be donated as a scholarship/grant to post-secondary students in the name of the victims from Edmonton.
The University of Alberta has also set up a memorial fund honouring professors Pedram Mousavi and Mojgan Dansehmand and the students who were killed in the crash. With a $1-million endowment, the fund will offer two $20,000 graduate student scholarships each year.