OTTAWA — An outpouring of grief over the deaths of dozens of Iranians with ties to Canada in a plane crash this week underscores the fact that while there may not be official diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran, there are clear personal ties.
Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, en route to Kyiv from Tehran on Wednesday, had 138 people on board on their way to Canada when the plane crashed shortly after take-off.
The stories of the lives that have emerged in the hours since paint a portrait of Canada’s Iranian diaspora, one that’s growing steadily thanks in part to students.
In 2016, 2,437 visas were issued to Iranians to study in Canada. In the first 10 months of 2019, that number stood at 11,754.
Many of those killed in the crash were on their way back to their studies, in universities and secondary schools across Canada. Others were preparing to resume their jobs teaching in those institutions, or doing research.
Coming to Canada as a student is seen by many Iranian families as a path to a more stable life, said Nilofar Shidmehr, an Iranian-Canadian writer and professor at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.
“These are Iranians who can afford to pay high tuition fees (plus) living expenses for their children and later for the entire family until they’ll establish themselves,” she said in an email.
But there’s also politics at play; a U.S. travel ban imposed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president saw many Iranian students shut out of plans to study there. So, they pivoted north, said Toronto immigration lawyer Pantea Jafari.
Canada was a cheaper destination than other countries, and also an easier one for friends and relatives to visit, she said.
That too can be seen in the numbers: temporary visas granted to Iranian nationals — including student visas — has risen from 35,793 in 2016 to 99,695 in the first 10 months of this year.
At the same time, there’s also been an increase in refugee claims. The Immigration and Refugee Board reports in the first nine months of the year, 3,993 Iranians lodged claims for asylum. In all of 2018, there were 2,538, and in 2017, just 679.
Jafari said Iranians seeking to emigrate or visit Canada have found themselves caught up in a complicated bureaucracy since the severing of diplomatic ties between Canada and Iran in 2012, including the closure of the Canadian embassy in Tehran.
Travel to neighbouring Turkey is required to apply for visas, and then upon arrival in Canada, wait times to turn those into permanent residency cards often stretch on far longer than for those from other countries, a situation Iranians have blamed on enhanced security screening from the federal government.
That in turn has driven people to the refugee system, where changes there have often seen claims accepted far faster than processing formal immigration permits, Jafari said.
Now, those seeking to emigrate for legitimate reasons are being turned away because the government doesn’t trust they aren’t just coming to claim asylum.
“It’s like they don’t know how to do a middle ground,” Jafari said of the various immigration issues created by government policy towards Iran.
However, the political climate of Iran has always been a push factor, Shidmehr said. The driver of the first modern wave of Iranian settlement in Canada was the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, and another wave of arrivals can be traced to reformists and political refugees fleeing after the 2009 revolution.
“As the situation in Iran worsened and became more unstable, increasingly more people leave Iran and come to Canada,” she said.
The plane crash has seen a direct channel of communication open between the Iranian and Canadian government; Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne minister spoke to his Iranian counterpart late Wednesday about the investigation into the tragedy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Thursday that while Canada does have significant issues with Iran, this situation is something different.
“It is clear we are coming together in the wake of a terrible tragedy,” he said at a news conference, where he disclosed that intelligence indicates the plane was shot down by an Iranian missile, possibly by accident.
“One can’t forget that the majority of victims on that airline were Iranian citizens and this is something that binds us together in our grief and I think the desire for answers from families who lost loved ones is fairly universal.”
Jafari said the relationship between Canada and Iran, including ongoing sanctions, causes continuing difficulties for the diaspora beyond immigration logistics.
“You don’t have any other communities where the two nodes of your personality, and of your citizenship, and of your being are at such odds with each other,” she said.
“There aren’t many other countries that the U.S. and Canada have such huge concerns with other than Iran. Your left side and your right side are conflicted.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2020.
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Several people from the Greater Toronto Area are among the 63 Canadians killed after a plane crashed in Iran.
Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 to Kyiv went down minutes after taking off from Tehran’s main international airport on Wednesday morning. The plane crashed into farmland outside of the capital, killing all 176 people on board.
The cause of the crash is still unknown.
York Region District School Board students killed
Multiple students from the York Region District School Board were killed in the crash.
“We are heartbroken by the news and our thoughts and deepest condolences are with all those affected,” the board chair and director of education, Louise Sirisko, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“This is a global tragedy affecting us locally and we join our families and communities in grieving. Sadly, we are aware that our region and schools have been directly affected by this sudden and tragic loss of life.”
The school board said that five students from four seperate schools were killed in the crash.
Toronto District School Board students, family members killed
The TDSB confirmed in a statement that a number of their students, along with their family members were killed in the crash. They also said the family member of one of their employees was killed.
“On behalf of the Toronto District School Board, we offer our sincere condolences to their friends, family, teachers and classmates,” a statement on Wednesday afternoon said.
“Social work staff are already working with the impacted schools and we are supporting the victims’ loved ones in any way we can.”
Speaking to CP24 Wednesday afternoon, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird confirmed that Maya Zibaie, a grade 10 student at Northern Secondary School, was among the deceased.
“The message that was recently sent out by the principal said she enjoyed attending high school and often shared with staff how excited she was about her future and reaching her academic goals.”
Senior kindergarten student Sophie Emami, grade six student Arsam Niazi, grade three student Arnica Niazi, grade four student Rahmtin Ahmadi and grade three student Shahzad Eghbali were also killed, the TDSB confirmed on Thursday.
University of Toronto students among the deceased
In a news release issued Wednesday, the University of Toronto confirmed that six students are among those killed in the crash.
“On behalf of the entire University of Toronto community, I want to say how deeply saddened we are, and how concerned we are for the families and friends of those who lost their lives. We are continuing to gather information, and taking care to respect the privacy and wishes of all involved.”
The University of Toronto has identified the six victims as Mojtaba Abbasnezhad, Mohammad Asadi Lari, Zeynab Asadi Lari, Mohammad Amin Beiruti, Mohammad Amin Jebelli, Mohammad Saleheh and his wife Zahra Hasani.
Flags at all three U of T campuses will be flown at half-mast.
Centennial College mourns loss of faculty member and his family
Centennial College has confirmed that a member of their faculty, as well as his young family, were killed in the crash.
In a tweet Wednesday, the college said that Dr. Razgar Rahimi, his spouse, Farideh Gholami and their three-year-old son, Jiwan, were all killed in the crash.
George Brown College student killed
George Brown College has confirmed that student Darya Toghian is among the deceased. Toghian had travelled to Iran with her mother for the holidays. Her mother was supposed to be on the return flight as well, but cancelled her ticket at the last minute. The 22-year-old was flying back to Toronto for her second semester.
27-year-old Sadaf Hajiaghavand was killed after the Ukraine International Airlines flight crashed. She is being remembered as someone who loved fasion and being with friends.
Behnaz Khoei Ebrahimi and Rahmtin Ahmadi
Toronto resident Behnaz Khoei Ebrahimi and her nine-year-old son Rahmtin Ahmadi were killed in the crash, CTV News Toronto has confirmed.
Iman Ghaderpanah and Parinaz Ghaderpanah
CTV News Toronto has also confirmed that Toronto resident Iman Ghaderpanah and his wife Parinaz Ghaderpanah were killed in the crash.
Mohsen Salahi and Mahsa Amirliravi
Two instructors at Cestar College, Mohsen Salahi and Mahsa Amirliravi, were killed in the crash.
“Mohsen and Mahsa have been part of our Cestar College faculty team for three years in the QEMT, CPMT, and LAQT programs,” Cestar College director Michael Vourkes said in a statement on Thursday.
“Mohsen and Mahsa were fantastic teachers, touching countless students’ lives during their time here at the college. But they were also tremendous individuals, forming strong bonds with many staff and faculty, and they will be greatly missed by fellow instructors, the academics team, and the college as a whole.”
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation confirmed an employee of the union’s provincial office, identified as Alina Tarbhai, was killed in the crash.
“Alina was a valued employee, and part of a tightly-knit team at provincial office. She was respected and well-liked by all. Her passing represents a profound loss for all of us who worked with her,” Bischof’s statement read.
“On behalf of OSSTF/FEESO members across the province, I want to extend our heartfelt condolences to Alina’s family, and to the families of all who were taken in this tragedy.”
Afifa Tarbhai, Alina’s mother, was also killed in the crash.
Parisa Eghbalian and Reera Esmaeilion
CTV News Toronto has confirmed that Parisa Eghbalian and her 9-year-old daughter Reera Esmaeilion are among the 63 Canadians killed in the crash.
Friends of Arad Zarei say they were chatting with the Richmond Green Secondary School student two hours before the crash. He had expressed his concern over the growing tension between Iran and the United States and said “Thank God i just left. If i stayed a couple more days…it would have been over for me.”
Optometrist and eye surgeon Neda Sadighi was killed in the crash, CTV News Toronto has confirmed. Colleagues said Sadighi had travelled to Iran before Christmas to visit family and was scheduled to return to work Thursday.
Bahareh Karami, a York Region staffer, is among those killed in the crash, CTV News Toronto has confirmed.
York Regional council confirmed the news in a statement in which they described her passing as “heart-breaking”.
“We are so shocked and extremely saddened by this tragedy,” York Region Chairman and CEO Wayne Emmerson said.
“Our prayers are with Bahareh’s family, friends and colleagues, and for everyone that may be impacted in any way by this horrific event.”
Friends and family of Suzan Golbabapour have confirmed to CTV News Toronto that the Richmond Hill resident was killed in the crash. Colleagues of the real estate broker say they’ll remember her most for her positive energy.
Flags lowered across GTA
In a statement issued Wednesday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said he was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy.
“We now know residents from Toronto were on this flight and have lost their lives – they were our friends, our neighbours, our classmates, our co-workers, and our loved ones.”
Tory said that flags at City Hall, and at civic centres in East York, Etobicoke, Scarborough, North York and York will be lowered until end of day Monday.
The Toronto sign in Nathan Phillips Square has also been dimmed.
Premier Ford heartbroken over tragedy
Premier Doug Ford has released a statement on the tragedy in which he said his “heart breaks” for the families and loved ones of those who died.
“Today, we mourn the 63 Canadians and all of the other passengers and crew of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 who lost their lives suddenly and tragically while flying from Tehran to Kyiv.”
Ford goes on to say that the Ontario government stands with the province’s Iranian community during this time of grief.
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