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Sadness and silence grips Canada's universities in honour of plane crash victims

Last Updated Jan 15, 2020 at 5:16 pm EDT

People gather for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine plane crash, at the gate of Amri Kabir University that some of the victims of the crash were former students of, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. Iran on Saturday, Jan. 11, acknowledged that its armed forces "unintentionally" shot down the Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week, killing all 176 aboard, after the government had repeatedly denied Western accusations that it was responsible. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

A sombre silence fell across Canadian university campuses Wednesday as the institutions honoured the 176 lives lost in a plane crash in Iran last week.

Many students, faculty and researchers from more than a dozen Canadian universities were among those who died when the Ukraine International Airlines flight was shot down by the Iranian military.

Several hundred mourners gathered at the University of Waterloo in Ontario to pay tribute to two PhD students – Marzieh (Mari) Foroutan, who was in the faculty of environment, Mansour Esfahani, of the faculty of engineering – and three alumni.

“We have lost so much life and love,” said Feridun Hamdullahpur, the university’s president.

Alireza Mohamadizadeh, a PhD engineering student, went to middle school with Esfahani in Iran as 11-year-olds in 2002. He described Esfahani as an intelligent man who as a teen ranked 200 among 600,000 applicants in the nation’s university entrance exams.

After completing his master’s degree at Sharif University of Technology, one of Iran’s top schools, Esfahani got into the prestigious PhD engineering program at the University of Waterloo.

The pair had lost touch for years before they ran into each other at a bus stop in Waterloo, he said.

“It was like there was never distance between us for the past few years,” Mohamadizadeh said. “He remembered all the teachers and their catchprhasese from middle school that I could not stop myself laughing.”

Esfahani had “so many sweet plans for his love life,” he said, and left Canada on Dec. 10 to prepare for his wedding over the holidays. After the wedding, his wife remained in Iran.

“She was about to join him in Feburary and start a new life here in Canada with Mansour,” Mohamadizadeh said. “He never said goodbye.”

Mazda Kompanizare, a research associate at the school who also came from Iran, said he was a close friend to Foroutan.

“You have gone and your passing has left a burning fire in our hearts,” he said at the memorial as he stifled tears.

In Edmonton, a handful of students gathered in a room at the University of Alberta set aside for grief counselling. The school lost 10 people in the crash, including two professors and a number of graduate students.

Asal Andarzipour, president of the university’s Iranian Students Association, said she wanted to be with others who are grieving.

“Silence is helpful,” she said outside the room. “It means a lot to us to hear that all of the universities across Canada are uniting to take this moment.”

Many have been seeking out counselling, she said, to help process their emotions.

“The room is definitely helpful and we are suggesting everyone go there,” she said.

In Montreal, most post-secondary institutions held informal moments of silence.

Students and staff gathered at the Ecole de Technologie Superieure held a solemn moment of silence for a married couple killed in the crash.

The couple, Arvin Morattab and Aida Farzaneh, had studied for PhDs at the school – and Farzaneh was now a construction engineer lecturer.

“This could have happened to any of us,” said Morty Ghaffari, who is doing his doctorate work in automated production.

“You never know how real it is until it happens to the person right next to you and you just realize how easily it could happen to any of us,” he said. “It’s so important to be here and support the ones who are directly hurt by this, support the ones who’ve lost their closest ones.”

Students at the University of Toronto fell silent at 1 p.m. to remember eight people with ties to the school, including six students.

About 100 students stood to mark the moment in one first-year computer science class as they stared at the names of the eight crash victims projected on a screen at the front of the room.

The school also announced Wednesday the creation of a scholarship fund for international students from Iran, or students of any background pursuing Iranian studies.

Rahim Rezaie, a researcher in the faculty of applied science and engineering, said the fund would help keep the victims’ memories alive.

“The impact has been tremendous,” he said after the moment of silence. “Eighty-five of those who perished, according to the Canadian Science Policy Centre, were either academics directly or very highly trained scientist folks.”

The Canadian Press has independently confirmed at least 89 victims with ties to Canada, many of them students and professors returning after spending the December break visiting relatives in Iran.

Western University, in London, Ont., held a memorial later on Wednesday to celebrate the lives of Hadis Hayatdavoudi, Milad Nahavandi, Ghazal Nourian, who were graduate students, and Sajedeh Saraeian, an incoming student.

Paul Davidson, president and CEO of Universities Canada, said it wanted to mark the one-week anniversary of the devastating incident.

“The loss to our community is profound, the loss of potential, the really bright minds and engaged people who were pursuing research interests that were diverse, that were from all fields,” he said. “It’s a very far-reaching loss.”

With files from Nicole Thompson and Paola Loriggio in Toronto, Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal and Colette Derworiz in Edmonton.

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