‘ Why them?’ Canada mourns its Iran dead

At least 63 cit­i­zens on flight: ‘ I don’t think any­body re­ally be­lieves it yet’

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Lind­say Sch­nell

ED­MON­TON, Al­berta – Meghan Rid­dell cov­ered her mouth to stifle a sob, dropped her head to hide the tears that had come and reached for a fistful of tis­sues.

“She would have moved moun­tains,” Rid­dell said, her voice crack­ing. “She would have been amaz­ing at any any­thing she did – she would have been an amaz­ing mother, an amaz­ing doc­tor or what­ever she be­came.”

Rid­dell, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ob­stet­rics and gy­ne­col­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta, strug­gled Fri­day to talk about one of her stu­dents, Saba Saa­dat, a fourth- year un­der­grad who died when her plane, Ukraine In­ter­na­tional Air­lines Flight 752, was mis­tak­enly shot down by the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment shortly af­ter tak­ing off Wed­nes­day

from Tehran. All 167 pas­sen­gers, plus nine crew mem­bers, were killed when the plane crashed into Ira­nian farm­land.

At least 63 Cana­di­ans were on the flight headed for Ukraine, and nearly half of them were from Ed­mon­ton, the cap­i­tal of the prov­ince of Al­berta and a city of just un­der 1 mil­lion on the North Saskatchew­an River.

Saa­dat died in the crash along with her older sis­ter, Sara, a Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta alum, and their mother, Shek­oufeh Choupan­ne­jad, an OB- GYN who worked in Ed­mon­ton. They are three of the 13 Ed­mon­to­ni­ans iden­tified so far to have died in the crash. Uni­ver­sity of­fi­cials said at least 10 of the vic­tims were part of the cam­pus com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing pro­fes­sors, stu­dents and alumni.

“I don’t think any­body re­ally be­lieves it yet,” Rid­dell said softly. “The news isn’t sup­posed to be on your doorstep.”

De­spite the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment’s ad­mis­sion late Fri­day that it did in­deed ac­ci­den­tally shoot down the plane and Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s as­ser­tion that the 176 peo­ple who died were in­no­cent vic­tims caught in a global conflict, peo­ple in Ed­mon­ton, es­pe­cially those in the tightknit Ira­nian com­mu­nity, weren’t ea­ger to point fingers or dis­cuss the pol­i­tics of the tragedy.

Rid­dell bris­tled when asked if she blamed any­one for the crash. “I don’t want to an­swer that,” she said.

Trudeau said in a news con­fer­ence Satur­day that Iran must take full re­spon­si­bil­ity for down­ing the air­craft.

“For many of those fam­i­lies, that has all been struck down out of the blue by a regime that they had fled in the past, that they be­lieved they had got­ten away from,” he said. “This is an in­ci­dent that is truly hor­ri­ble, and I am an­gry, I am dis­ap­pointed, but I am firmly com­mit­ted to get­ting an­swers and com­pen­sa­tion and help and jus­tice for the vic­tims.”

In Ed­mon­ton, the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta was strug­gling to deal with the af­ter­math of a tragedy that had shaken many stu­dents and fac­ulty.

Across cam­pus Fri­day, it was mostly busi­ness as usual: Shriek­ing stu­dents bun­dled in puffy coats and gloves threw snow­balls at one an­other in the quad de­spite mi­nus- 4- de­gree tem­per­a­tures, and a line snaked through the Cen­tral Aca­demic Build­ing in the mid­dle of cam­pus as hun­gry stu­dents lined up for Panda Ex­press’s sig­na­ture sticky or­ange chicken.

But in small cor­ners of the fifth- largest cam­pus in Canada, sor­row over­whelmed fac­ulty and friends of the vic­tims. Makeshift coun­sel­ing cen­ters popped up in of­fices and con­fer­ence rooms as stu­dents tried to grap­ple with the loss. On the 10th floor of the Chem­i­cal and Me­chan­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing build­ing, flow­ers, pho­tos and notes sprung up at the of­fice door of Pe­dram Mousavi and his wife, Mo­j­gan Danesh­mand, two en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sors who died when the plane went down.

“I know this is weird, maybe even rude of me writ­ing a let­ter to you right now, es­pe­cially since I was never a stu­dent of yours or your wife’s,” read one note left by a stu­dent. “How­ever, I think that if any­one ever helped oth­ers to such a de­gree that it pains peo­ple greatly when they’re gone, it’s worth say­ing ‘ thank you.’”

The cou­ple’s two daugh­ters, Daria Mousavi, 14, and Do­rina Mousavi, 9, also were killed.

Amir Gha­hari, who vol­un­teers with the Ira­nian Her­itage So­ci­ety of Ed­mon­ton, knew the fam­ily and helped coach Do­rina Mousavi’s lo­cal soc­cer team, the Glory Girls. He said that since learn­ing of the crash, he kept rememberin­g when Do­rina showed up at prac­tice one day suck­ing on a lol­lipop. When he told her to throw it away, she ex­claimed, “But I need my sugar!” be­fore col­laps­ing into gig­gles.

“She was re­ally sweet, definitely so cute,” Gha­hari said sadly.

In uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent David Turpin’s of­fice Fri­day af­ter­noon, plans were un­der­way for a large me­mo­rial ser­vice Sun­day af­ter­noon on cam­pus. Large boxes of easels and posters blocked walk­ways as staff hud­dled and mapped out a pro­gram they hoped could de­liver some com­fort to a com­mu­nity “that’s just reel­ing,” Turpin said.

“To have lost these won­der­ful in­di­vid­u­als,” he said, “is some­thing we’ll never re­cover from.”

Un­like in Iran, where protests broke out in Tehran af­ter the gov­ern­ment ad­mit­ted shoot­ing down the plane, there have been no protests in Ed­mon­ton. Nearly ev­ery­one USA TO­DAY spoke with de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions be­tween Iran and the United States af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump or­dered the killing of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top mil­i­tary com­man­ders, this month.

At a me­mo­rial set up at City Hall, one vis­i­tor wrote in the guest­book: “Sorry for the tragic loss. So many in­no­cent lives gone be­cause of hate from oth­ers.”

But Turpin said that “no­body I’ve en­coun­tered is out there talk­ing like that. At this point, our fo­cus is sim­ply to deal with this in­cred­i­ble loss. ... There will be lots of time to look into what hap­pened. But for now, for to­day, it’s time to honor them.”

The Ira­nian com­mu­nity is small but tightknit in Ed­mon­ton, to­tal­ing around 4,000, ac­cord­ing to data from the 2016 Canada cen­sus ( there are about 210,000 Ira­ni­ans to­tal in Canada, a coun­try with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 37 mil­lion). Ad­di­tion­ally, the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta is home to about 500 Ira­nian stu­dents. Turpin said about 400 of them are on stu­dent visas, and the other 100 are per­ma­nent res­i­dents.

Turpin said his of­fice was still work­ing with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to iden­tify ev­ery­one who was on the plane. He was told some of the pas­sen­gers were stu­dents who had been ac­cepted to the uni­ver­sity and were on their way to cam­pus for the first time to reg­is­ter.

Two Go Fund Me ac­counts have been launched, and both had raised a to­tal of al­most $ 60,000 as of Sun­day. The money is ex­pected to be used for Sun­day’s me­mo­rial, and or­ga­niz­ers of the cam­paigns, in­clud­ing the Ira­nian Her­itage So­ci­ety of Ed­mon­ton, say any ex­tra money will be do­nated to the uni­ver­sity in hopes of es­tab­lish­ing a scholarshi­p fund in mem­ory of the vic­tims.

Saa­dat, a sci­ence stu­dent, was set to grad­u­ate this spring and planned to at­tend med­i­cal school. Rid­dell felt a spe­cial con­nec­tion to the 21- year- old: Saa­dat was the first stu­dent Rid­dell ad­vised. Rid­dell and Saa­dat traded emails when Saa­dat was in Iran, and Rid­dell said Saa­dat was ex­cited to get back to Ed­mon­ton and get to work in the lab.

Rid­dell spoke warmly of Saa­dat’s kindness, em­pa­thy and bril­liance. But Rid­dell’s fa­vorite thing about Saa­dat, she said as a smile crossed her face, was Saa­dat’s sense of hu­mor, par­tic­u­larly her habit of of­ten break­ing into gig­gles, “some­times at re­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ments,” in an effort to break ten­sion.

It’s a trait she shared with her mother. At North­gate Cen­tre Med­i­cal Clinic, a fam­ily prac­tice where Choupan­ne­jad worked for the past five years, Dr. Mah­moud Ismael said the of­fice had been flooded with calls and emails of dis­traught pa­tients heart­bro­ken to hear of the loss of their fa­vorite doc­tor. In a crowded wait­ing room housed at the end of an old mall, a small ta­ble dis­played a pic­ture of Choupan­ne­jad and her daugh­ters, plus a few flower ar­range­ments and notes from pa­tients.

Khadija Sqalli, 31, stood silently at the ta­ble and shook her head as her daugh­ter, Layaane Sabr, clung to her mother’s leg. Sqalli ex­plained that Choupan­ne­jad had been her doc­tor all through her preg­nancy with Layaane, 2, and that she had seen Choupan­ne­jad on her last day of work in De­cem­ber, right be­fore she left for Iran.

Sqalli said the clinic that day buzzed with en­ergy and chaos as Choupan­ne­jad jug­gled mul­ti­ple pa­tients but did so with her usual grace and help­ful­ness. Sqalli, along with other doc­tors and as­sis­tants at North­gate, said you al­ways knew when Choupan­ne­jad was work­ing be­cause you could hear her glee­ful laugh rip­pling across the of­fice.

In an exam room, Ismael sat with his shoul­ders slumped, re­call­ing how he texted with Choupan­ne­jad shortly af­ter she got to Iran, be­cause she had jet lag and couldn’t sleep. She pep­pered him with ques­tions about her pa­tients and the clinic, telling him she couldn’t wait to get back to work. Ismael shook his head sadly.

“Why them? What did they do?” he said re­peat­edly, hold­ing his hands out help­lessly.

Choupan­ne­jad and her daugh­ters are sur­vived by Choupan­ne­jad’s hus­band, who is still in Iran, and an older brother, Navid Hakimi, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto. Fri­day morn­ing, Hakimi posted a photo on Face­book of his sis­ters sit­ting on the trunk of a car, laugh­ing as they licked cups of ice cream. “Sara Saba. I was al­ways jeal­ous of your bond,” it read. “Even death could not take you apart.”

PHO­TOS BY PERRY NEL­SON FOR USA TO­DAY

At North­gate Cen­tre Med­i­cal Clinic in Ed­mon­ton, Al­berta, col­leagues hon­ored Dr. Shek­oufeh Choupan­ne­jad and her daugh­ters, Sara and Saba.

A me­mo­rial sprang up on the stairs of the Al­berta Leg­isla­tive Build­ing in Ed­mon­ton. Nearly half of the Cana­dian vic­tims were from the prov­ince’s cap­i­tal.

PERRY NEL­SON FOR USA TO­DAY

Friends and stu­dents re­mem­bered Pe­dram Mousavi and his wife, Mo­j­gan Danesh­mand, two en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sors at the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta.

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