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Iranian Heritage Society president Reza Akbari has been dealing with the aftermath of the recent air crash. (Ashley Orich)

‘Hope is as small as a needle’

Like many Edmontonians, Reza Akbari is struggling
to survive the emotional destruction of Flight PS752 
By Ashley Orich

LIKE MANY Edmontonians of Iranian descent, Reza Akbari has a personal connection to the recent plane crash in Tehran that claimed all 176 on board, including 57 Canadians.

His friend and basketball teammate, Nasim Rahmanifar, was one of the 13 Edmontonians who died in the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport Jan. 8.

“I’m thinking, No this didn’t really happen,” he said. “And I’ll go back to the basketball field, and Nasim will be there with that happy beautiful smile. She always had a big smile walking to the field.”

Rahmanifar was on the Boeing 737 when it was struck by two missiles fired by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. It took the Iranian leadership three days to admit to the act, which has left families in Edmonton and in Iran bereft.

“In the last 40 years, there hasn’t been a single evidence of a top high rank of the country of Iran, particularly the Revolutionary Guard in this case, coming behind a podium and confessing that they’ve done something wrong,” Akbari said. 

Some bodies may never be returned, unless the Iranian leadership decides to accept full responsibility and to recognize dual citizenship, Akbari said.

“This is what keeps us motivated every day – passionate to move forward. We want to do whatever we can. And we’re not going to rest until we achieve accountability – justice for the families, for their friends – and we’re not going to rest.” 

As president of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton, Akbari has been working since the crash with families, as well as provincial and federal government officials, to see what can be done to help the community. 

The Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton has organized fundraisers and is offering financial support to those who have been impacted the most, but Akbari says all the families say no money can bring back their children. They want justice.

However, achieving justice can be easier said than done. 

For starters, Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, so any Iranian-Canadians on the plane are considered Iranian only. Canada and Iran also severed diplomatic ties in 2012 under the Harper government.

“They were begging over the phone: Whatever you can do. Whatever international bodies you can contact, like the UN. Is there anywhere? ‘Cause we can’t do anything in Iran,” Akbari says of the families in Iran. 

The admission by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that his country had shot down the plane was a historic moment for people of Iran.

“They came behind a podium and confessed they shot at the airplane with two missiles. This was a significant achievement. I don’t know even if necessarily the government of Canada knows the depth of impact on Iranian people to hear that.”

Mayor Don Iveson has also been helpful, Akbari said, offering help with the memorial ceremony, and suggestions for short and long-term plans to help the families and the community.

The most touching moment with the mayor, Akbari says, came when he explained who was a permanent resident and who had citizenship. 

Iveson said: “I don’t care what their status is, whoever lives in Edmonton is an Edmontonian.” 

Akbari said, “He emphasized it with such a strong expression, and at that time, I think it was the biggest relief that we got in that meeting.” 

Now, the main focus is how to keep the memory of the victims alive, Akbari said. The heritage society is arranging events over the next eight months, ranging from social gatherings to programming for International Women’s Day. The latter is expected to “really resonate with the values and dreams of the females that were on the plane from the youngest to the oldest.”

Around the world, memorials and events have also been planned in honour of the victims. In Ukraine, Jan. 9, the day after the crash, was declared a day of mourning.

“Flags were flying at half mast and flowers were brought to Boryspil Airport in Kyiv,” said Svitlana Krys, who is the Kule Chair in Ukrainian Studies at MacEwan University .

“In Canada, the Ukrainian Canada Congress issued a statement in regards to this tragedy. The Ukrainian Consulate has a book of condolences at City Hall where people can leave messages.” 

After talking to the media about Iran, Akbari said he will never be able to return to his home country. He can never go back to see his family. Nor can any of the other people speaking out about Iran. 

However, he said, he felt the risk was worth it. 

“In 2005, I sat on a plane with an international student’s visa, and came with so much hope to Canada.”

Now, 15 years later, he found himself looking at the list of victims and seeing someone who was following in his footsteps.

“Amir Hossein – he was with an international student visa – he was on that plane. He left with so much hope, but he never made it.

I can relate to so many stories on that plane. It could be me, it could be anybody else. There’s no difference. The only way we can move forward – I cannot accept this walk-away.

“And me and my wife, we tell each other, even if that hope is as small as a needle, if one day or 40 years, I want to lead with that hope.”

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