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London's Iranian community 'just trying to hang on'


Jan. 11, 2020

The grief washing in waves over London’s Iranian community following the deaths of 176 people in a plane crash near Tehran is compounded by worry for their friends and family in their homeland.
“They have a feeling of absolute helplessness – they don’t have anything to cling to,” said Sohrab Rohani, a Western professor who was mentoring of four Western students who died in the air disaster Wednesday. “Most of the students here, their parents, their families, (are still in Iran).”
Western has more than 200 Iranian students, and the city’s wider community includes academics and professionals.
London Mayor Ed Holder, who attended an emotional vigil for the four students at Western on Wednesday, said the city’s Iranian community has been deeply affected by the crash that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said was likely caused by an Iranian missile and is “just trying to hang on.
“Regardless of how the plane came down, what we’re dealing with is the enormity of the loss. This has hit everybody deeply,” he said. “These were some of the best and brightest. There will come a point in this grief process that they will want to know the reason why. To find logic in an illogical, horrible situation. Today, this week, is not that week.”
Carrying 138 passengers bound for Canada, many of them graduate students at universities from coast to coast, the Ukraine International Airlines flight crashed moments after taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 aboard.
Three PhD students at Western – Hadis Hayatdavoudi, Ghazal Nourian and Milad Nahavandi – and Sajedeh Saraeian, who was coming to Western to do a master’s, were on the plane.
Nahavandi had gone to Iran to arrange for his parents to travel to Canada this summer, said Rohani, who was his mentor.
“Unfortunately that didn’t materialize,” Rohani said.
Nahavandi was an “amazing, energetic very, very polite, hardworking, motivated student,” he said.
Rohani, who came to Canada in 1999 to study at Western, is a member of London’s Baha’i community, the second largest religion in Iran after Islam. About half of their roughly 400 London members are of Iranian descent.
Canada is a popular destination for Iranian students, he said, because grad programs are well-funded and students can become permanent residents.
The shock and sadness is also being felt in Iranian communities in cities across the country that were on edge before the crash following the assassination of a top Iranian general by the United States and Iran’s firing of ballistic missiles at American bases in Iraq in retaliation.
“For me personally it’s been a whole hell of a week with all the news in Iran,” said Mohammad Keyhani, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, who came to Canada from Iran as a grad student in 2008. “Everybody is on edge in the Iranian community – it’s really, really scary.”
He said the thought of another war fills him with despair.
“Everyone was calling it Black Wednesday – and life would be hell for everyone outside Iran as well, of course, as well as the mayhem inside Iran,” Keyhani said.
Flying in Iran is risky, he said. Few major airlines offer direct flights because of sanctions imposed on the country.
“The sanctions have really hurt conditions of living in Iran and flying out of Iran,” Keyhani said “No one is willing to sell planes to Iran making it difficult and dangerous for anyone flying in Iran.”
Canada, he said, often ignores its relationship with Iran, which is why people expressed surprised over “how one plane out of Iran could contain so many bright people.
“They ignore each other as though there is no relationship,” he said. “Whereas so many Iranians live in Canada and contribute to society, study in the grad programs and become professors.”
Dr. Liyakat Takim, Sharjah chair in Global Islam in the department of religious studies at McMaster University, also knows the sting of loss.
His friend Asghar Dhirani was on the flight. Dhirani had travelled to Iran to lead a pilgrimage to shrines in the country.
“We were very close – it’s traumatic and painful for everyone involved,” Takim said. “For many Iranians, I think it varies from disbelief, to surreal to it’s a nightmare. Without a doubt it is one of worst weeks (for the Iranian Canadian community).”
Dhirani’s family is headed overseas to identify the body, Takim said.
“They are taking all the appropriate records – as you can imagine it is extremely excruciating for them,” he said, adding two other pilgrims, a mother and daughter, were with him.
In Islam it is normal to bury the body as quickly as possible after it is “washed, shrouded and funeral prayers are said over it,” Takim said.
“But these are extenuating circumstances,” he said. “Normal procedures do not apply.”
Takim said he takes some comfort in “a feeling of solidarity beyond a particular religion” from the rest of Canada.
“They are grieving with us, that kind of helps – a sense of the whole community has lost,” he said. “There is an outpouring of grief.”
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