The gut-wrenching loss of 57 Iranian-Canadian lives – all killed while aboard a Ukrainian jetliner in Tehran – has taken a toll on the nation, greatly impacting the communities these people chose to call home.
Those aboard the doomed plane, which Iranian officials have admitted was mistakenly shot down with a missile by its own military, included families with young children, doctors and dozens of international students whose bright futures were cut short.
Saman Arfaie says one of his closest friends, Mohammad Hossein Asadi-Lari, was no exception.
“Mohammad was the future of Canada’s growing lineage of the clinician-scientist-entrepreneur,” Arfaie said. “Mohammad’s presence was a sense of comfort and he was on his way to becoming one of the most compassionate and caring physician-scientists of his generation.”
Mohammad, 23, and his sister Zeynab Asadi-Lari, 21, were two of the 14 people with B.C. ties to die in the crash, as confirmed by a number of sources.
Born in Iran before growing up in the U.K., Mohammad’s family travelled to more than 20 countries before settling in Burnaby six years ago, when he was in Grade 12. While speaking in a TedxTalk hosted in Vancouver last year, Mohammad described his experience moving from “a very strict academic culture of Iran” to one more focused on extra-curricular activities and leadership.
But Mohammad found a way to flourish in his new community after a teacher suggested he use his passion for chemistry to push through his comfort zone and start a science club. At the time, Mohammad said he didn’t even know what a club was.
“That’s really the starting point of a journey that I’ve been on over the past five years since moving to this country, and one that has had these two phrases really weaved into it and that’s youth [and] empowerment.”
Mohammad went on to graduate with honours from the Cellular, Anatomical and Physiological Sciences program at the University of British Columbia in 2018. He was in his second year of medical school at the University of Toronto.
Zeynab also had notable leadership qualities, according to faculty at U of T. First enrolled at the UBC in 2016 in the Bachelor of Science program, with a major in biology, Zeynab transferred to U of T’s Mississauga campus when her brother did.
A “fierce advocate” for mental health, reducing stigma, public health and global health, associate professor Fiona Rawle said in a news release that when faced with a barrier, Zeynab would look for solutions and always followed up her ideas with action.
“She was fiercely competitive with herself but collaborative with others,” said Rawle recalls, adding that the young woman had an incredible capacity to build relationships and exhibited “tremendous leadership skills.”
She could often be found mentoring others, and served as the mental health network co-ordinator for the Youth Mental Health Association, a youth member at Young Canadians Roundtable on Health, and executive board member at the Iran University of Medical Sciences Medical Student Association for Cancer Research.
‘He dedicated his time and energy to the wellness of others’
Arfaie said he’ll remember his friend for his natural leadership and passion for taking part in a long list of community projects and organizations, including work as a youth advisor for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
“What set Mohammad apart, was his passionate visionary leadership, continuous strive for excellence and empathy and genuine care around everyone that interacted with him,” Arfaie said.
Mohammad’s interest in inspiring youth continued into adulthood, co-founding a non-profit organization called STEM Fellowship with a teacher in Toronto in 2016. Today, the program includes mentorship and internship opportunities for youth across the country.
“He dedicated his time and energy to the wellness of others. In this way, he was the most selfless man I have ever met to this day,” Arfaie continued.
“His vision was purely humanitarian and I cannot stress the importance of his strong work with youth empowerment—his mission was of a connected kind.”
The two friends, both aspiring surgeon-scientists, were considering working together on peer-reviewed manuscripts and had brainstormed ideas for a medical consulting company.
Arfaie is now being forced to grapple with the fact that those dreams of a future working with Mohammad no longer exist.
“The shock of losing him becomes harder to digest given our active involvement, and mutual interest, in many different projects.”
To honour Mohammad and Zeynab’s life, Arfaie has turned to music. Shortly after the crash, Arfaie posted a video to his social media of him playing Opus 48, no. 1 by Frederic Chopin, inspired by Mohammad’s love for classical music.
Along with the nocturne, Arfaie has one promise: that he will continue the siblings’ legacy of advocacy, scholarship and youth involvement.
“I only wish I had the chance to play for him before he left us so early.”