On 6 January, Alvand Sadeghi was due to fly from Tehran back to Toronto. But a rapidly deteriorating political situation in the region left the web designer with a cancelled flight.
Eager to return, the 29-year-old booked a new flight two days later, on Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752. He was travelling with his wife, sister and eight-year-old niece. Shortly after takeoff, however, the plane was in trouble – hit, it is now suspected, by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.
“It’s just crazy how destiny works to steal the greatest,” said Patty De Frutos, a co-worker of Sadeghi. “We all know he was the best out of all of us.”
Hundreds of Toronto residents gathered throughout the city on Thursday evening for candlelight vigils commemorating the 176 victims of the crash, most of whom were travelling onward to Canada.
In northern Toronto – a section of the city with a large Iranian population dubbed “Tehranto” – large crowds gathered in the cold beside a makeshift memorial.
“We have no words yet,” De Frutos said as she and friends of Sadeghi prepared to lay bouquets in tribute to their friend. “But we’ll probably never have the words. He was truly a pure soul.”
As the crowd grew in size, Pajman Loghmani stood at the outer fringes, waiting for his son. In his gloved hands, he held Canadian and Iranian flags.
“I’m proud to have been Canadian for the last 13 years, but I keep my roots,” he said. “And I teach my boys to know where they live, but also where they’re from.”
Loghmani’s friend Hamed Esmaeilion, a dentist, lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and daughter Reera on the flight.
“I haven’t had the chance to call him – I want to respect his privacy,” Loghmani said. “But it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Putting myself in the shoes of those who have lost someone – it’s unimaginable.”
Stories of the victims’ lives continue to emerge – the lives of doctors, engineers, students, parents and friends. The former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne told those at the vigil that the stories highlighted the widespread and deep influence many of the Iranian diaspora had throughout Canada.
The Toronto mayor, John Tory, called it a “tragedy”, telling the Iranian community the city stood in solidarity with those affected. In a nearby civic centre, hundreds more gathered to lay flowers and candles for the victims.
Following a statement by the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, earlier in the afternoon that multiple intelligence reports pointed to a missile bringing down the plane, the vigils took on a new dimension.
“We want justice! We want justice!” the crowd shouted at one point. Later on, the crowd began jeering the Iranian government. “Death to the Islamic regime!” a number of people shouted.
Minor scuffles between pro- and anti-regime people broke out at both the square and inside the civic centre, with police removing a handful of people from the building. But for most part the focus was on paying tribute to members of the community whose absence is being felt deeply.
A week before she left for Iran, architect Mahdieh Ghassem learned she had won a commission to design a Tim Hortons cafe. Her two young children, Arnica and Arsan, were in the gifted program at school, said friend Yalda Norouzi.
“She was a very kind mom. She worked to achieve everything for them,” Norouzi said, choking back tears. “She was so kind. By coming here tonight they will stay alive in our hearts forever.”
Norouzi carried a bag of white candles. Her husband held a framed photograph of Ghassemi and her children and laid it at the memorial.
“Toronto is the most multicultural place,” Norouzi said. “It doesn’t matter which country you’re from – you’re human, you are Canadian. They were members of Canada and this loss is for this country, not just Iran.”