‘ Why them?’ Canada mourns its Iran dead
At least 63 citizens on flight: ‘ I don’t think anybody really believes it yet’
EDMONTON, Alberta – Meghan Riddell covered her mouth to stifle a sob, dropped her head to hide the tears that had come and reached for a fistful 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 flight 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 identified 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 conflict, people in Edmonton, especially those in the tightknit Iranian community, weren’t eager to point fingers 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 fled 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 firmly 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 puffy 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 fifth- 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 floor of the Chemical and Mechanical Engineering building, flowers, 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, definitely 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 first 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 first 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 effort 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 five years, Dr. Mahmoud Ismael said the office had been flooded 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 flower 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.”
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.
Friends and students remembered Pedram Mousavi and his wife, Mojgan Daneshmand, two engineering professors at the University of Alberta.