Farid Chassebi was sitting in Bible study Tuesday night at the Spirit of Truth, a Persian church just east of the Little Tehran strip of businesses in north Toronto, when he noticed people casting aside their Old Testaments and pulling out their phones. Gasps and sobs escaped their lips. He retrieved his own phone to see a news alert: Iran had launched missiles at military bases in Iraq housing American troops. To him and most of his fellow congregants, a war between the United States and their home country seemed imminent.
Some raced out of the room to call their families in Iran. Mr. Chassebi opened WhatsApp to message his in-laws, who were in Tehran, the capital. His Instagram feed was soon populated with posts about the attack and anti-war memes.
Hours later, those posts were supplanted with even more devastating ones: photos of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which had crashed minutes after taking off in Tehran, killing all on board. Then, photos of the passengers, many of whom were en route to Canada, posted by their loved ones or colleagues.
With each day bringing devastating news, shock, grief and anger have united Canada’s Iranian diaspora, a group spanning several generations and waves of migration. Many in the 210,000-strong community have only one degree of separation from the plane-crash victims. Some travel to Iran frequently, or have family connections in their homeland. Others haven’t been in decades but still have memories of fleeing before the revolution, or living through the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which has made what’s happening “over there” seem so close.
“They know the war,” said Mr. Chassebi, who was a child in Tehran during that conflict. “They still have the sound of bullets in their ears.”
He remembers sleeping under the dining table so he’d be protected from falling debris if his home was bombed at night. He fears that will soon be the reality for another generation.
On Thursday morning at Super Khorak, a bustling Persian grocer that has operated in Toronto for three decades, a ceiling-mounted TV was set to news coverage of the crash. As Iranian-Canadians wandered the aisles, placing grape molasses and rose water in their baskets, some stopped to stare at the screen with expressions of sadness and disbelief.
“We are a big community and we are very alive. We call it Tehranto. We have [Persian] stores, we have [Persian] newspapers, we are very active. I can say that half of me is always in Iran,” said Medi Shams, 68, who moved to Canada in 1993.
Mr. Shams, who was a political activist in Tehran and continues to write criticisms of the Iranian government in Canada, said many have different relationships with their home country depending on when they arrived. The first phase brought exiles, then came those who decided Iran was not for them post-revolution, and the last group is made up of young people born after the revolution.
Mr. Shams has not travelled back to Iran and cannot imagine it; but Fahimeh Behboodi, one of hundreds of Iranian students who travelled to the University of Alberta to pursue postgraduate education and has only ever known postrevolutionary Iran, says going home to visit her parents each year is vital.
“They need us, we need them. We need those connections, we need to hug them. No video call, no telephone call can take the energy you get out of hugging them, out of just talking with them at night,” said Ms. Behboodi, a mechanical engineering graduate.
The flight path is one many Iranian-Canadians have taken. There are no direct flights between the two countries so the Tehran to Kyiv to Toronto route has proven popular.
Nima Tabbakh, 34, took it just last year to visit his family in Tehran, but given the tense political climate, he doesn’t imagine he’ll be making a trip back home for some time.
Since he had his second child four months ago, he has tried to bring his mother to Canada but she was denied a visa. He was told she “did not have any ties to Iran” and “maybe she wants to stay here.”
Sanctions, an oppressive government and a plummeting currency have driven many out of the country and into Canada. In 2017, 685 Iranians claimed asylum here, but that figure surged to 4,290 in 2019.
“Every time there’s a crash of a bus or a train, for [members of the diaspora] it recalls the environment of global sanctions," says Neda Maghbouleh, a University of Toronto sociologist who studies the Iranian diaspora. She says the sanctions have crippled Iranians’ way of life. "People do not have the tools or the spare parts or the cancer medication that would help sustain life.”
Mr. Chassebi left Iran in 1987 but frequently sees the consequences of Iran’s marginalized place in the world. A few months ago, one of Mr. Chassebi’s friends messaged him from Iran in panic. His wife was suffering internal bleeding in her brain and was desperate for medication that she couldn’t access because of sanctions imposed on Iran. Through a diasporic network spanning the globe, Mr. Chassebi tracked the needed medication in Dubai and was able to send it through someone flying to Tehran to get it to his friend in time.
On Thursday evening, hundreds attended a vigil in north Toronto for the victims, a few of them holding large pre-revolution Iranian flags and leading chants of “Terrorist regime must go/Canadians say so." At one point a few attendees vocalized their support for the Iranian regime in Farsi, and were shouted down by the larger crowd.
Mr. Tabbakh says he encounters these regime supporters occasionally in Richmond Hill, the city north of Toronto that has been transformed by Iranian immigration in the last decade, but their shared cultural identity helps them overcome differing politics.
“I don’t find it hard to relate to them at all," he said. "When Iranian people talk Persian to each other, they have many, many words to talk about everything from politics to science to food.”
With a report from Emma Graney in Edmonton