Nearly one hundred mourners gathered in front of Penn’s LOVE statue Wednesday night to honor passengers who perished in a flight shot down by Iranian missiles last week.
Most mourners at the candlelight vigil were Iranian graduate students from Penn and nearby universities, many of whom had friends or family on commercial flight PS752. While some mourned in silence amid candles, roses, and photos of the deceased, others recited poetry, sang Persian songs, and gave speeches.
The vigil was organized by members of Penn’s Persian community and Penn Chaplain associates, and was co-hosted by Penn Ph.D. students Mehrafshan Jafari and Pardis Pashakhanloo, who both attended Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and lost former classmates in the plane crash. The flight was scheduled to land in Ukraine, but 138 of 176 passengers had their final destination listed as Canada. According to The Wall Street Journal, about three dozen of those killed were flying back to Canadian universities after winter break.
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down in the early hours of Jan. 8. Security camera footage shows two missiles fired from an Iranian military site that were responsible for striking the plane, which killed all passengers. After three days of denial, an Iranian commander took responsibility for the crash and labeled it a “mistake.” This attack came days after United States government officials killed Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, with authorization from President Trump.
Third-year chemistry graduate student Borna Saeednia, who also attended SUT and lost friends in the tragedy, said most Iranians who study or work out of the country attended the same few top universities in Tehran, so many Iranian academic communities abroad are tight-knit.
"I’ve never actually lost people that I interacted with on a daily basis," Saeednia said.
Drexel Ph.D. student from Iran Reza Moradinezhad, who also spoke at the vigil, expressed frustration with the current Iranian government and said the incident "changes the game."
"This incompetence is beyond comprehension, even for Iranian people who are used to this kind of ridiculous decision making," he said. "A passenger airplane full of Iranian people has been shot down by our own government, so what is the guarantee that this is not going to happen again? We have to do something. This regime has to go; it has to give the country back to the people."
Pashakhanloo lost an Iranian friend from middle school in the flight, Pooneh Gorji. Gorji was returning to Canada with her fiance, Arash Pourzarabi, after their wedding celebration seven days prior to the crash.
“She was a kind person. She really was a beautiful soul that we lost. I really hope that we see peaceful days, beautiful days,” Pashakhanloo said.
Jafari, who also knew Gorji, thanked mourners and gave an emotional speech about her friend.
"Part of my soul is gone after her death," Jafari said to those gathered. "I am so glad and thankful for all of you that came here tonight – it means a lot."
Amid their grief, Iranian students called on their government to be held accountable for the tragedy.
“I’m glad that people come together and I hope that everyone gets to the conclusion that we have to rise, we have to stand up, because there is no other solution," Moradinezhad said. "We have no guarantee for our lives anymore, so if we don’t have any guarantee for our lives, we might as well fight for a better future."