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Iranian U of M students mourn victims of Ukraine airline crash

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Candles are places on steps.
Candles honoring the 176 people killed in a Ukrainian passenger jet crash last week are placed on the steps of Northrop at the University of Minnesota Wednesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Iranian students at the University of Minnesota say they are still grieving the 176 people killed last week when Iran’s military mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane amid heightened tensions with the United States. Two missiles struck the jet shortly after it took off from Tehran, bound for Kyiv. Many of those aboard were on their way to study overseas — a fact not lost on their counterparts here.

The number of Iranian students at the U is small, only about 130 on a campus of 51,000. Most are extremely busy with work on graduate degrees. But Wednesday evening, around 70 of them paused for several hours to reflect on the tragedy and remember those who died.

Iranian students at the University of Minnesota light candles.
Iranian students at the University of Minnesota light candles on the steps of Northrop on Wednesday in honor of the 176 people killed when the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

In a science building lecture hall, musician Aida Shahghasemi sang a song in Persian that she wrote several years ago.

“The song is about how easy it is to place blame on other people in a lot of situations. And it has to do with taking personal responsibility in the sense of personal agency that seems to be lacking quite a bit these days.”

Shahghasemi, who grew up in Tehran and Eden Prairie, Minn., said it was important to share her song in the gathering to support others from her native country.

A woman sings with her eyes closed.
Aida Shahghasemi, a 2008 University of Minnesota graduate, performs one of her own compositions in Persian at a memorial ceremony at the university Wednesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Nargas Majed came to the Twin Cities to be with her husband, a Ph.D. civil engineering student. Among the photos of victims projected on the classroom screen were Iranians in their 20s pursuing advanced degrees at universities across Canada. Majed said it was especially difficult to see pictures of other newlyweds.

“Just two months ago coming here, I remember the excitement I had just to be here and to start a new life with my husband. Two of them were a new husband and wife and they had just been married three days before the flight,” Majed said.

Arash Mahnan, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, helped organize the memorial. He said one of the victims was a former student when Mahnan was a teaching assistant in Tehran. He says tragedies like this can exacerbate the loneliness of foreign students.

“It’s a sad thing to happen to the country. It’s a sad thing to happen to all of us, but if we share it together, it’s going to be easier for us to get peace with it,” Mahnan said.

A number of those aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 were doing what the U students do routinely: fly home to visit family and return to study. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination for Mahnan to see himself in their place.