Iranian diaspora in Canada grief-stricken

Mourners attending an outdoor vigil for the victims of the doomed flight on Thursday. PHOTO: REUTERS
Mourners attending an outdoor vigil for the victims of the doomed flight on Thursday. PHOTO: REUTERS

EDMONTON • The fume hoods in the laboratory set up by Ms Saba Saadat were silent on Friday, the lab's computers and microscopes switched off. Sobs occasionally punctuated the silence.

Professor Meghan Riddell, the leader of the cell biology lab, comforted a weeping student while two teary-eyed technicians stood by. Ms Saadat, a biology student, had been one of the most promising students at the University of Alberta.

"She was a PhD disguised as an undergraduate," said Prof Riddell, herself in tears. "That girl could think."

Ms Saadat was among the 176 people who died when a flight leaving the Iranian capital, Teheran, bound for Ukraine crashed on Wednesday. Also killed were her sister, a recent graduate in psychology who was heading to graduate school, and their mother, an obstetrician and gynaecologist.

In all, 57 Canadians died and a number of other victims appear to have been Iranian students studying in Canada.

Although the crash has spread grief throughout the Iranian diaspora in Canada, the tragedy has disproportionately struck the city of Edmonton, capital of the oil-rich province of Alberta.

About 27 residents of Edmonton were on board the airliner, and at least 10 of them were, like Ms Saadat, students or faculty at the University of Alberta.

The anguish has only been deepened by evidence that it was an Iranian missile that brought down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752.

Reminders of the losses were everywhere as the university's sports centre was readied for a public memorial service today.


Flowers, chocolates, photographs and candles were set outside the offices of the faculty members who perished, in departments where students studied and on the steps of Alberta's sandstone legislature.

Flags have been lowered throughout the city of just under one million people. A railway bridge spanning a deep river valley that defines Edmonton geographically has been lit with red and white lights - the colours of the Canadian flag - in memorial.

In this multicultural nation, Iranians are comparative newcomers: Most arrived after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Today, by some counts, Canada has the third-largest number of expatriate Iranians in the world, and its universities are a top destination for Iranian graduate students.

Iranian-Canadians are an accomplished group academically and professionally. In Edmonton, as across Canada, they include physicians, dentists, engineers and academics.

In a suburban shopping centre featuring food from Japan, Taiwan, India and Pakistan, Ms Mahnuash Jannesar, co-owner of the Persia Palace, a combined grocery and restaurant, said that as photos of the victims began appearing in the news media, she recognised about half of them as customers.

"They came to Canada for a future; there is no future in Iran," she said. "It's so sad."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 12, 2020, with the headline 'Iranian diaspora in Canada grief-stricken'. Subscribe