Ukrainian Plane, Iranian Brain and Canadian Pain

We must worry about the future of Iran if the Flight PS752 passengers constitute a representative sample of the brains Iran is losing.

Sixteen alumni of Iran’s best engineering school — Sharif University of Technology — were on the Ukrainian Flight 752, 12 of them shown in this photo. From left to right: [top] Arash Pourzarabi (26), Ghazal Nourian (26), Mohammad Salehe (32), and Pouneh Gorji (25); [middle] Hamidreza Setareh Kokab (31), Elnaz Nabiyi (30),Mohammad Amin Beiruti (29), Milad Ghasemi Ariani (32); [bottom] Iman Aghabali (28), Amir Ashrafi Habibabadi (28), Mehdi Eshaghian (24), and Mohammad Mahdi Elyasi (28)

Note: This article was published a few hours before Iran admitted that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) had shot down the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752).

earing sad stories about home is nothing unusual for Iranian immigrants. We grow up with fear, tension, uncertainty, and conspiracy theories. Many of us migrate for peace, but no matter how far we get, how long we have been away, and how many passports we carry, we still care about the country we call home, even if we are not welcomed there.

In the Middle East, every day can involve surprises and may be the start of a new chapter of our lives. We have seen wars, lies, corruption, inflation, currency crashes, chaos, controversial elections, assassinations, terrorist attacks, and innocent civilians getting shot or dying in demonstrations, earthquakes, floods, fires and stampedes. We have had classmates getting beaten for their political views and friends imprisoned for mysterious reasons. And we have lost many friends and family members in tragic road accidents.

Plane crashes are not new in Iran either. In the U.S., “97 percent of aviation fatalities occur in general aviation (not commercial flights)”, killing the rich and famous. But in the country under U.S. sanctions, flight accidents take the lives of ordinary Iranians flying commercial planes in an aviation industry that for decades has struggled purchasing new aircrafts and spare parts for its old fleet.

So, the news of a plane crash right after the death of 78 people in a funeral stampede and an earthquake near the Iranian nuclear plants in Bushehr when our country is at the edge of a war with the U.S. under Donald Trump should not technically bother us much. Yet, this story of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 crash is different for me.

The newlywed couples aboard the Ukrainian Flight 752: Top: Arash Pourzarabi (26), left, Pouneh Gorji (25), right, University of Alberta graduate students at their wedding a few days before departure. Pourzarabi was an informatics olympiad gold medalist; Bottom-left: Niloofar Ebrahim (34), left, Kingston University graduate, and Saeed Tahmasebi Khademasadi, (35), right, Imperial College PhD student. The couple had decided to stay in Iran for a few extra days to get their wedding photographs; and Bottom-right: Siavash Ghafouri-Azar (35), left, and Sara Mamani (36), right, Concordia University alumni.

Unlike other plane crashes in Iran, the aircraft in this incident was neither old, nor owned by Iran. The operating company was not under American sanctions and the plane was not shot down by the Americans as the Iran Air Flight 655. The crashed jet was not the fatal Boeing 737–MAX either. So, one cannot immediately blame the U.S. for intentional and direct involvement in this fatal accident.

The Flight PS752 had 176 people on board, including its 9 Ukrainian crew members. The lives of all these innocent people must matter to the world and the cause of their death must be determined immediately through a fair, apolitical, and thorough investigation. As everyone else, I want justice for them all but have no power to reverse the loss of their families.

So, as the politicians and media are playing their typical post-crisis games of accusations, I have been trying to investigate about the Flight PS752 passengers. Who were they and why were they on board?

Where were the passengers from?

The Flight PS752 passengers were from five countries. The passengers’ nationalities were not as diverse as most international flights around the world.

The information released by the Iranians on the nationalities of the passengers must have been based on the passports they used for entering and leaving Iran, reflecting the original nationality of the passengers. Iranian dual citizens must use their Iranian passports to enter and exit Iran. So, they are registered as Iranians at check in. Based on the Iranian media, the flight had 150 (90%) Iranian passengers. The flight had also had 10 Afghan passengers, and majority of them were dual nationals.

The remaining passengers included: two Ukrainians; three Swedes (the husband and two children of one Iranian-Swedish passenger, Raheleh Lindberg (37)); and two Canadians accompanying their Iranian-Canadian religious pilgrimage tour leader, Asghar Dhirani (74) — the oldest passenger of the flight.

The last selfies of the Ukrainian Flight 752 passengers, moments before taking off from the Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport (IKA). Top: Sahar Haghjoo (37) and her daughter Elsa Jadidi (8); Bottom-left: Sahan Hatefi Mostaghim (32), left, and Shahab Raana (36); right; Bottom-middle: Iman Aghabali (28), left, and Mehdi Eshaghian (24), right, at the airport coffee shop after passing passport control gates before boarding; and Bottom-right: Iman Aghabali (28)

The statistics reported by the international media are different and must be based on the passports the dual-citizens on this flight were planning to use at their final destination. Based on the available information, at least 71 passengers of this flight were dual nationals, among them at least 55 Canadians, seven Swedes, and three Britons.

Where were they going?

Flight PS752 was a connecting flight for most passengers, returning to their residence from the new year’s holidays. More than 80 percent of the passengers (138 people) were en route to Canada. The rest were headed to other European destination, including Sweden (at least 17), Germany (at least 4), and the UK (at least 4).

Why did they choose the Ukraine International Airlines?

The easy answer is that the Ukrainian airline provides one of the most affordable options. But it’s not only about the price. Those traveling to Iran, especially from North America, do not have the luxury of choosing from too many options.

Due to sanctions and political tensions, no Canadian and American airline flies to Iran and no Iranian airline flies to North America. Flying from Canada to Tehran through Dubai or Doha is an option but usually not the shortest and cheapest one. It’s best to make connections in Europe. Given the limited number of airlines providing service between Iran and Canada, during a high season, you should be lucky to find a seat at a reasonable price. If you have a limited budget, like most students do, the Ukrainian International Airlines provides an appealing option, in comparison to Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, and Turkish Airlines.

The Canadian media paid a strong attention to the stories of the passengers aboard the crashed Ukrainian plane. Out of the 167 passengers of the Flight PS752, 138 people were en route to Canada and 63 people were Canadian citizens.

How much do we know about the Iranians on board?

Finding out what caused the crash definitely matters. But What’s striking to me and deserves extra attention is the number of educated Iranians on this plane, including:

  • Three university professors and instructors: Mojgan Daneshmand (43), Pedram Mousavi (47), and Razgar Rahimi (38);
  • Seven medical doctors and students: Mohammad Asadi Lari (23), Shekoufeh Choupannejad (56), Mohammad Amin Jebelli (29), Firouzeh Madani (54), Siavash Maghsoudlou Estarabad (43), Naser Pourshaban Oshibi (53), and Neda Sadighi (50);
  • Three dentists: Parisa Eghbalian (42), Sharieh Faghihi (58), and Farhad Niknam (44);
  • Twenty-eight PhD students and graduates: Mojtaba Abbasnezhad (26), Mehran Abtahi (37), Iman Aghabali (28), Fareed Arasteh (32), Amir Ashrafi Habibabadi (28), Ghanimat Azdahri (36), Mohammad Amin Beiruti (29), Mansour Esnaashary Esfahani (29), Mehdi Eshaghian (24), Aida Farzaneh (38), Marzieh (Mari) Foroutan (37), Milad Ghasemi Ariani (32), Hadis Hayatdavoudi (37), Pedram Jadidi (28), Saeed Kadkhodazadeh Kashani (29), Forough Khadem (38), Arvin Morattab (35), Elnaz Nabiyi (30), Zahra Naghibi (32), Milad Nahavandi (24), Ghazal Nourian (26), Alma Oladi (27), Sara Saadat (23), Amir Hossein Saeedinia (25), Hamidreza Setareh Kokab (31), Mohammad Salehe (32), Paniz Soltani (29),and Saeed Tahmasebi Khademasadi (35);
  • One doctor of veterinary medicine: Samira Bashiri (29);
  • One pharmacist: Azadeh Kaveh (40); and
  • Twenty-five master’s students and graduates: Negar Borghei (30), Niloofar Ebrahim (34), Mohammad Mahdi Elyasi (28), Faraz Falsafi (31), Parinaz Ghaderpanah (33), Siavash Ghafouri-Azar (35), Amirhossein Ghassemi (32), Masoumeh (Masi) Ghavi (30), Pouneh Gorji (25), Shadi Jamshidi (31), Bahareh Karami Moghadam (33), Fatemeh Mahmoodi (30), Maryam Malek (40), Sara Mamani (36), Amir Hossein Ovaysi (41), Arash Pourzarabi (26), Shahab Raana (36), Nasim Rahmanifar (25), Kasra Saati (47), Alvand Sadeghi (29), Mahdi Sadeghi (43), Sahand Sadeghi (39), Mohsen Salahi (31), Sajedeh Saraeian (26), and Sam Zokaei (42).
“Words simply cannot express the grief that we are feeling on campus,” says the University of Alberta president David Turpin of the Ukrainian plane crash that killed several students and staff members of this university.

Only a few of these young, talented Iranians had done their K-12 and undergraduate education out of Iran. Among them were three national science olympiad medalists. At least 50 of them were graduates of Iran’s top ranked schools like Sharif University of Technology, University of Tehran, Amirkabir University of Technology (Tehran Polytechnic), and Iran University of Science and Technology. Out of the 68 victims mentioned here, two PhD students were headed to Switzerland and Germany, one medical doctor (MD/PhD) and one pharmacist were en route to Sweden, one PhD student and two master’s degree holders were going to the U.K., and one PhD student was travelling to the U.S. via Canada. The rest had all chosen Canada as their home, many of them non-dual citizens, living in Canada on student visas.

Iran’s brain drain and Canada’s human capital gain

The brain drain problem of Iran is no secret. The country continues to lose its talents to Europe and North America. Most of the people who leave Iran for work or graduate studies never return. Even the Donald Trump’s visa ban has not stopped the flow of Iranian graduate students to the United States. Yet, migrating to the U.S. is not as easy as the days of Barack Obama, when U.S. was believed to be the number one destination of top Iranian students.

The 68 victims named above are only the people who had pursued studies beyond the bachelor’s level and their education background was available online. The crashed plane also included Iranian undergraduate and high school students as well as successful professionals, entrepreneurs, and teachers making valuable contributions to their new land.

These people were only the passengers of one international flight out of Iran we got to know about after they were killed. What worries me is what we don’t know about Iran’s lost human resources through other international flights that don’t crash! If the passengers of PS752 are a representative sample of the people Iran is losing on a daily basis or even at the beginning of each academic semester, the country is suffering from a catastrophic human capital loss, despite the recent claims of some of its government officials.

The age distribution of the Iranian passengers of the Flight PS752 (own calculations). There were 12 children below the age of 10 and one infant on board. Eighteen passengers were between 10–20 years old. Two people were above 60 and one person was above 70 years old. Most Iranian passengers were headed to Canada.

Fifty-five percent of the Iranian passengers of Flight PS752 were between 21 to 40 years old and 71% of them were between 21 to 50 years old. Nearly half of the nine Iranian passengers in the 51–60 age group were medical doctors and dentists. These people who had mostly left Iran for Canada after their undergraduate or first graduate degrees had an above-average education level in Canada and were actively contributing to the Canadian science, engineering, health, economy, and society.

Canada has been a popular choice for those educated and skilled Iranians who leave Iran in pursuit of a better life quality. Iran’s bad management of its economy and human capital is one side of coin. On the other side of the coin, one must credit Canada’s determination, desire, commitment, and capacity to welcome and take advantage of brains. The level of reaction of Canadian people, officials, and media to this tragic story of the Ukrainian plane crash reflects how well the Iranian immigrants were integrated into the Canadian society and how much they mattered to their government.

The Iranian passengers of Tehran-Kiev Flight PS752 were only a tiny portion of the brains Iran has been losing to the rest of the world. Iran’s deteriorating economy and environment, human rights violations, and nuclear, military, and political adventures are always featured by the international media. But you hear less about how the young Iranian talents who grew up and got educated in iran are contributing to their new societies, trying to make the world a better place for all, regardless of the disturbing political flights between their new and old homes.

Iranians get banned from traveling to the U.S.. Many of them, get “randomly” stopped at international borders and are interrogated by police officers, who seem to know nothing about Iran, even after becoming dual nationals. Despite these difficulties, most of the young people who have the chance to leave Iran, decide to do so. While successful in their new homes, these people have no role in Iran’s today and future. Even if they want to help, they are not allowed to do so, as was experienced in my case. Having left the country at the age of 22 and with the experience of a failed attempt to return , I understand why the young, educated Iranians decide to migrate and respect their decision. Though, I’m extremely worried about Iran.

I feel very connected to the passengers of Flight PS752. I had mutual friends with many of them who are now devastated at the tremendous loss of so many young and bright Iranians. All I can do is going through their social media accounts and Google Scholar profile to learn more about them. I know I can’t bring them back but I want to know who they were, what they were doing, and why they were on that doomed plane.

The airline was Ukrainian and the aircraft was an American Boeing 737–800, but the passengers were mostly Iranian by birth and Canadian by choice. This is a joint loss for Iran and Canada — two countries whose people once more proved to be interlinked and inseparable even though their politicians have chosen to be officially disconnected.

About the author

Kaveh Madani (Twitter: @KavehMadani) is a Henry Hart Rice Senior Fellow at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University, and a Visiting Professor at Imperial College London.

Former Deputy Head of Iran’s Department of Environment, Ex-VP of United Nations Environment Assembly Bureau, Rice Senior Fellow at Yale,