Global conflict never far away, Iranian student says

New graduate Asal Andarzipour found herself in a leadership role at the U of A and in the local Iranian community in the wake of the PS752 disaster.


As president of the U of A's Iranian Students’ Association, Asal Andarzipour helped support a university and a city devastated by the sudden loss of 13 members of their community aboard Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752. “Any of us could have been on that flight,” she said. “Many of the passengers were people just like us: international students seeking better opportunities abroad.” (Photo: Supplied)

In the days following the tragedy of Flight 752, Asal Andarzipour desperately held things together.

Two missiles struck the Ukraine International Airlines flight on Jan. 8, killing 13 Iranians with connections to the University of Alberta. As president of the Iranian Students' Association, Andarzipour was suddenly thrown into crisis management, fielding media calls, attending meetings with university administration and helping friends struggling to understand what had happened. She also sought help from the U of A's mental health services.

Students to receive posthumous degrees

Five U of A students who were aboard Flight PS752 will be awarded their degrees posthumously on June 12:

  • Pouneh Gorji, 3rd year, MSc (Computing Science)
  • Elnaz Nabiyi, 3rd year, PhD, Business (Operations and Information Systems)
  • Arash Pourzarabi, 3rd year, MSc (Computing Science)
  • Nasim Rahmanifar, 1st year, MSc (Mechanical Engineering)
  • Saba Saadat, 4th year, BSc (Biological Sciences)

Historically, posthumous degrees have been granted to students who were within one or two years of completion of degree requirements, who were in good standing and who had completed course work but not exams.

"We call it a plane crash, but it was not a regular accident, it had a lot of complexities," Andarzipour said. "There were feelings of sorrow, but at the same time anger."

It wasn't the first time political conflict interrupted Andarzipour's studies. As an industrial design student at the University of Tehran, Andarzipour joined student protests in the "Green Movement," Iranian protests in the aftermath of the 2009 election. During a master's degree in upstate New York, her world was upended by the fledgling Trump administration's 2017 travel ban targeting Muslim countries. She threw together an application to study art history at the University of Alberta. Then disaster struck here too.

"Sometimes, I feel like as an Iranian, I have no way out," Andarzipour said. "It seems like you leave your country, your circumstances, but they keep coming with you."

East meets West

After a harrowing semester of memorial services, the COVID-19 pandemic came as a kind of relief.

Shortly after the plane was shot down, Andarzipour told a Canadian Press reporter that "silence is helpful" during a tragedy. Yet it wasn't until the sudden cancellation of normal life-social events and in-person classes-that Andarzipour finally experienced it herself.

"I found myself in my room, at my desk, just being able to study. Every time I find myself in a very stressful or hopeless situation, I feel that school is the answer, because you can find out more about the truth," said Andarzipour, who will graduate June 12 with a master's in the history of art, design and visual culture.

Andarzipour poured herself into her remaining coursework, including a capstone project in which she examined how the Persian Qajar dynasty was represented at the World's Fairs in late 19th-century Europe.

During those massive public events, the shah's travels to Europe turned him into an exotic icon of the distant East. Andarzipour examined the collisions of East and West, the construction of "Oriental" stereotypes and images around the monarch. The 1979 Iranian Revolution overturning the shah ended up creating a cultural identity crisis, Andarzipour said.

In a world of rising nationalism, religious and cultural stereotypes and mass migration, Andarzipour said a new era of image-building is underway.

"The same thing is happening right now," she said. "There are many migrations due to political circumstances; people are starting to make assumptions about each other."

Andarzipour's study of history was a new turn in an education that had been largely studio-based and focused on practical problem-solving. Four years ago, she was neck-deep in a thesis in design at Syracuse University when Donald Trump shocked the world with his election. The looming international travel ban-targeted broadly at Muslim countries-left Andarzipour and hundreds of Iranian students scrambling to move to Canada and elsewhere.

The U of A has a long history of graduate students from the University of Tehran, so Andarzipour quickly found her footing in Edmonton. The switch from the studio to the library was an invigorating turn from function and problem-solving to meaning and critical thinking.

While she hopes to eventually return again to studies, she's looking for ways to combine her design skills and knowledge of art history, possibly working in an art gallery like she did at the U of A's FAB Gallery, or working in designing museum webpages. She plans on moving to Ontario, where her brother also lives, to look for work.

"I'm going to miss it. That's the feeling I have," Andarzipour said. "It's helped me with improving my abilities in critical thinking. I have the theory to back up my ideas."

Seeking answers

More than four months after the plane tragedy, there's still no black box, no public reckoning, no explanation for what happened on Jan. 8.

It's a familiar theme for Andarzipour and the Iranian diaspora.

"We still don't know what happened that caused the loss of 176 lives," she said. "It's a reminder that we really should seek justice. Because if we don't follow up, people are going to forget."

Like many members of her diaspora, Andarzipour feels pulled in opposing directions. She'd love to return home, yet fears what would happen if she did. She sees connections and continuity in a world that doesn't abide complexity. And she's marking an academic achievement while the feelings of grief, pain and loss are still fresh.

Her studies have added to that, teaching her to look at contemporary issues with an eye to the past. Where she'd previously seen east and west as opposites, she now understands them in continuous dialogue, like how language evolves and exchanges words and concepts.

It's why Andarzipour will continue talking about Flight 752, a disaster that was more than a mere accident, which could happen anywhere in the world and affect the people right next to you, particularly at a global hub like a university.

"Any of us could have been on that flight," she said. "Many of the passengers were people just like us: international students seeking better opportunities abroad."