For Canada, airliner tragedy in Iran is deeply personal

Why We Wrote This

Canada may be thousands of miles away from the site of the Ukrainian passenger jet crash in Iran, but the tragedy is personal. Most of those on the flight were Canadian or had deepening ties to the country.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press/AP
A woman remembers those killed in the civilian Ukrainian jetliner that crashed early Wednesday morning near Tehran, killing all 176 people on board, during a vigil in Toronto, Jan. 9, 2020. The vast majority of those aboard the plane were bound for Canada or were Canadian citizens.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the plane crash in Tehran that killed all 176 on board, including 63 Canadians, a “tragedy that shocked the world.” But it is also very poignantly a Canadian tragedy, and a sign of the era.

The vast majority of passengers on the flight, which Western intelligence says was accidentally shot down by an Iranian missile, were families and students who had been visiting relatives in Iran and returning to Canada. Toronto, often dubbed “Tehran-to,” counts 100,000 born outside Canada, the second largest Iranian diaspora after Los Angeles.

Now Canada feels it’s getting dragged deeper into U.S.-Iran conflict. The flight took off just hours after Tehran launched missiles at U.S. forces on airbases in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general last week. Some here blame the U.S. as much as the Iranian regime for the tragedy.

“Yes I’m angry at the U.S.,” says Naseeva Ali, who was attending a vigil Thursday night. Her colleague at a Toronto accounting firm lost his wife and young daughter in the crash. “We just felt frozen when we found out,” she says. “I’m here to support him, and the children.”

They were doctors and accountants. They were pursuing lines of discovery in Ph.D. programs in medicine and science. They were young students with big ambitions.

The victims of the plane crash Wednesday morning in Tehran that killed all 176 on board, including 63 Canadians, were mourned at a vigil Thursday night in Toronto, one of several held across the country as candles flickered in the cold.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the crash a “tragedy that shocked the world.” Its repercussions are global. But this is also very poignantly a Canadian tragedy, and a sign of the era.

The vast majority of passengers were families and students who had been visiting relatives in Iran and returning to Canada. They were some of the very residents and immigrant families who have been held up as symbols of Canada’s embrace of diversity and multiculturalism while the U.S. shuts its doors.

And now, as Western intelligence indicates that it was not mechanical error but an Iranian surface-to-air missile that brought the Ukraine International Airlines plane down, Canada feels it’s getting dragged deeper into U.S.-Iran conflict. The flight took off just hours after Tehran launched missiles at U.S. (and Canadian) forces on airbases in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general last week. Some here blame the U.S. as much as the Iranian regime for the loss being mourned from one Canadian coast to the other.

“Yes I’m angry at the U.S.,” says Naseeva Ali, who immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago. Her colleague at a Toronto accounting firm lost his wife and young daughter in the crash. They had stayed in Iran for a few more days with family while Ms. Ali’s co-worker returned to his job. “We just felt frozen when we found out,” she says. “I’m here to support him, and the children. When I saw all those kids,” she says, “the generation we lost.”

Canada has increasingly become home for a new generation of Iranians. Toronto, often dubbed “Tehran-to,” counts 100,000 born outside Canada, the second largest diaspora after Los Angeles. The communities differ; the vast majority of Iranians in the U.S. immigrated during the 1979 revolution. Canada’s Iranian community is newer and thus closer to Iran, as immigration has remained more open here while the economic situation in Iran worsens, says Alidad Mafinezam, the president of the West Asia Council, which promotes exchange for diaspora communities. Of the 176 passengers, 138 were on their way to Canada, to visit relatives, study, or work.

“When Iranians come here as students, or permanent residents, the vast majority stay because of the difficulties of life in Iran. So we lost 138 current and coming Canadians,” he says.

Canada’s academic world has been particularly devastated. The number of Iranian foreign students, for example, increased by 48% between 2017 and 2018, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. This follows a general uptick of international students in Canada who are finding a warmer welcome here than in the U.S.

That was underscored by the sheer collective talent – in science, medicine, technology, and entrepreneurism – that was Canada-bound on Wednesday.

Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, a professor of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, says the victim list reflects the diversity, whether religious, cultural, or professional, of the diaspora and counters stereotypes often perpetuated in the media of Iranians and immigrants generally, especially Muslims.

“Iranians may have one head in their religious textbooks, but they have another one in their physics books, and one in their architectural books,” he says. Canada has benefited from that diversity; he himself moved to Canada from the U.S., in part for family reasons but with relief after 9/11 as he saw American intolerance growing.

His university lost six students. The University of Alberta in Edmonton lost 10 members, from faculty to Ph.D. students. Across Canadian campuses flags were lowered to half mast. 

Classmates of Arad Zarei, who was a senior in high school on the flight, clung together Thursday night, sharing turns holding a collage they made of the teen’s school pictures throughout the years or posing with friends. They say he wanted to be an engineer. “He was always optimistic about improving himself, inside and out,” says his friend Soroush Mirza. “I never saw him giving up.”

“He was the best person on earth,” added another of the dozens of schoolmates from Richmond Green Secondary School.

The grief is compounded by geopolitics and anger directed at both sides in the conflict. At the vigil Thursday night, angry shouts of “justice” punctuated the sorrow, just hours after Mr. Trudeau announced evidence that it was Iran’s fault, which Iran denies. And yet there is also blame directed at U.S. President Donald Trump for ordering the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and thrusting global diplomacy into turmoil.

Reporters tried to press Mr. Trudeau on what responsibility the U.S. bears for the tragedy; he reiterated that he’s awaiting a full-scale investigation. Canada finds itself in a vulnerable position, with severed diplomatic relations with Iran since 2012 and with a complicated relationship with its longtime ally under Mr. Trump.

But public opinion has already answered the question that Mr. Trudeau wouldn’t. Dr. Tavakoli-Targhi says that U.S. sanctions and restrictions, which have made the Tehran-Kyiv-Toronto route a popular, lower-cost alternative, also play a role.

“All of these sanctions that are imposed on Iran are also impacting the kind of routes that people take, the kind of options that people have for traveling, and then you have the kind of tragedy like this happening. … So many get killed because the option of traveling back to Toronto has become increasingly very limited,” he says. “No one is paying more for Trumpism than the Iranians who are living in North America and Europe and outside of Europe.”

“The tears involuntarily come out, because I see myself as having been on that flight,” he adds. “Everyone puts himself or herself in that position, ‘This could be me.’”

To read the rest of the Monitor’s coverage of the U.S.-Iran clash, please click here.

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