People partake in a solemn vigil Jan. 13 for seven students from York Region north of Toronto who were among the 176 killed when Iran mistakenly shot down a passenger plane. Mickey Conlon

Community shares in the grief over Ukrainian airline victims

By  MICKEY CONLON AND ANDREW EHRKAMP
  • January 14, 2020

A solemn vigil for seven students  — including a Catholic high school student and an adult studying English at a Catholic school — began with two students singing the haunting words of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” and for the most part it was an evening of silence as hundreds gathered to remember the young lives cut short Jan. 8 by the downing of a Ukrainian airliner over the skies of Tehran, Iran.

The York Catholic District School Board partnered with the York Region public board, the City of Richmond Hill and York Regional Police Jan. 13 to host the vigil which drew mourners to the Dr. Bette Stephenson Centre for Learning. They gathered to remember victims from York Region north of Toronto who were among the 176 killed, 57 of them Canadians of Iranian descent, when Iran mistakenly shot down the passenger plane shortly after it took off from Tehran’s international airport headed for Kiev, Ukraine. For many on board, it was the first leg of a flight home to Toronto.

The victims included Dorsa Ghandchi, a Grade 11 student at Jean Vanier Catholic High School in Richmond Hill, who was travelling with her mother Faezeh Falsafi and eight-year-old brother Daniel, and Dr. Farhad Niknam, a dentist who was an adult English as a Second Language student of the Catholic board. Staff members and families connected to the board also lost loved ones.

“Those who died in the crash of Flight 752, we are here to support you…. We all share in the pain and grief,” said  Majid Jowhari, the local MP.

Jowhari was among federal, provincial and municipal politicians, as well as the chairs of the two local school boards, who expressed sorrow and support for those affected by the tragedy.

Ab Falconi, director of education for the York Catholic board, called it a tragedy that so many “bright lights with so much to contribute” died in such a senseless way. The plane was shot down in error as Iran was on heightened alert, expecting reprisals from the United States after Iran launched missiles at a U.S. military base in Iraq. The missiles were in response to a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Falconi said the Catholic community is praying for all the victims and “in your grief, we do stand with you.”

Board chair Maria Marchese expressed gratitude for the large number who gathered to remember victims “so young, with so much to give.” 

Marchese was joined on stage by her public school board counterpart Juanita Nathan. She urged the crowd to take comfort in each other as they mourned their friends and neighbours.

“We’re here as one community so deeply affected by this tragedy and here to support each other in this difficult time,” she said.

The local MPP, Michael Parsa, knew a number of the victims and was emotional as he condemned this “senseless, unforgivable crime.” He urged those gathered to remember the victims and their contributions to society.

The Richmond Hill ceremony was mirrored in communities across Canada which suffered losses. Particularly hard hit was Edmonton, and the University of Alberta, with 13 community members killed. Their lives were recalled by family and friends at a Jan. 12 memorial at the Saville Community Sports Centre at the University of Alberta, attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

The victims were remembered 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 nine-year-old Dorina.

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.”

Particularly stinging for Iranian Canadians is that their own government was responsible for the tragedy, and they are collectively demanding an explanation.

“You cannot imagine what we felt,” said Mohi Mahmoudi, a PhD student at the University of Alberta who knew the victims. “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.”

The University of Alberta 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.”

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