(Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)
On a chilly day in January, members of Toronto’s Iranian community and friends gathered in the cozy environs of Massey College for a solemn remembrance—and to look to the future.
The reception, hosted by Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto, supported the Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship Fund, and honoured the memory of those lost in the tragic downing of flight PS752 outside Tehran three years ago. On January 8, 2020, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 was shot down, killing 176 passengers. Among them were 57 Canadians, 30 permanent residents, and eight members of the University of Toronto community.
As family, friends and faculty mingled with students at the reception, the air filled with the beautiful strains of Sohrab Malekzadehamoli’s cello. Malekzadehamoli is a master’s student at the Faculty of Music and an Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship recipient.
The evening advanced the community’s efforts to create a positive legacy despite wrenching loss. The goal: raise support for students in need and deepen the study of Iranian culture and history at U of T. As President Gertler pointed out in his remarks, the students on Flight PS752 were full of optimism—not only for their own futures, but for others.
“We can honour their legacy by sharing with others the hope and optimism they brought to the world,” he said. “As donors to the fund, you are each honouring their compassion, their contributions, and their memory. Thank you for creating opportunities for young people to pursue a world-class education and continue the vital work of transforming our world.”
Creating a scholarship in loving memory
Dr. Hamed Esmaeilion spoke at the reception. A dentist and an award-winning writer, he lost his wife Parisa and only daughter, Reera, in the tragedy. As president and spokesperson for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, Dr. Esmaeilion shared the moving story of how the bereaved families united to seek answers and justice for their loved ones, and to keep alive the memories of the lost.
The scholarship is part of that effort. In the days after the tragedy in 2020, Rahim Rezaie, an independent consultant with Academics Without Borders, and Mehrdad Hariri, CEO and President of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, worked with U of T to establish the fund. As the fundraising efforts began, Rezaie said, “We felt that the broader community could use some way to channel our grief into a more hopeful outlet.”
The Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship Fund aims to raise a minimum $250,000, with the University providing matching funds at an effective rate of 3:1. The University will match funds raised after this amount 1:1. Thanks to generous donor support from around the world, the fund has raised more than $180,000 to date. Those donors have changed the lives of seven Iranian students, studying in fields from music to computer science. Hitting our goal will ensure we can support even more recipients.
”Higher education, science, and research have been a big and bold part of the legacy of PS752, as 80 of the passengers were from the scientific community,” said Hariri. “And now the Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship Fund, which has been replicated in many universities across the country, reminds us of the legacy of those victims and their contribution to science and higher education in Canada.”
Transforming our world… by supporting future leaders
Mojan Majid, a third-year student and scholarship recipient, will make her contributions in data science. “It’s a combination of computer science and statistics,” she says, “getting valuable insights from data to solve a problem. I was a research assistant last year, and that’s something that I want to explore more. I worked in a computer science lab on a project regarding creating a messaging system to improve people’s mental health using machine learning.”
“I had a lot of financial worries,” she says, “because of the reduced value of the Iranian rial.” (Inflation in Iran has exceeded 30 per cent every year since 2019.) “I thought that I would need to work many hours every week to support my studies. But the scholarship has reduced my worries. Without it, continuing my studies would have been very difficult.”
Studying mathematical and physical sciences, second-year student Amirali Atrli says the scholarship helped him focus fully on his education. “I work part time, teaching math to my peers, but I didn’t feel pressured to reduce from my studies and work. The award meant I could do more physics, and I had the chance to go to the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Conference and present there.”
He’s proud of the storied tale of Iranian contributions to science, which include founding algebra, developing the world’s first hospital system, and early thought on the speed of light. “In science class they were talking about the first endeavours in optics and that was very endearing to hear,” he says.
“I’m happy that we value science so much today. When I look at papers and see Iranian scientists in various research teams, it makes me proud, and also hopeful for a future where this body of scientists isn’t scattered across the world and has the possibility to pursue what they aspire to at home.”
You can help a student from Iran
Support for scholarships really is life-transforming, says Atrli. “I remember the day I heard about the scholarship: I was not sure if I was going to be able to pay my tuition on time. When I received the email, and I was so relieved! I was able to pay for my tuition, and could continue attending the university.”
Most of all, he says, “it’s an honour, because it’s in the memory of the people that we lost.” Majid agrees. “It’s not just the financial value. This is a legacy. It still breaks my heart, for they could have been here today.”
“Scholarships offer hope and support to young people often at pivotal moments in their lives,” said David Palmer, U of T’s Vice-President, Advancement and interim Vice-President, Communications. “Whether it enables them to focus fully on their studies or to try special projects, scholarships are extraordinary gifts that open life-changing doors of opportunity. Our matching offer is still available, and we’d love to work with you to increase the impact of these scholarships.”
Learn more about the U of T community members memorialized by the Iranian Student Memorial Scholarship Fund.