‘He was enjoying his life’: Friends and colleagues remember U of O student Saeed Kashani

Author’s note: This memorial profile honours the life of Saeed Kashani, who was a PhD student studying chemistry at the University of Ottawa.

Saeed, along with 175 others, died in a tragic plane crash in Iran on Jan. 8, 2020, when their Ukrainian passenger flight was shot down by an Iranian missile.

Two other U of O students also died in the accident: Mehraban Badiei Ardestani, an undergraduate health sciences student, and Alma Oladi, a graduate student who was completing a PhD in mathematics.

At the Fulcrum, we made an effort to honour the lives of the three students who had their lives cut short. Our goal was to share each of their stories by the end of January. Due to unfortunate circumstances, only Saeed’s story was completed, and we didn’t think it made sense to only honour the life of one student. We ultimately decided that we withhold publication at the time, out of respect for the victims and their loved ones.

On his final day in Canada before heading back home to Iran for the Christmas break, Saeed Kashani asked his roommate Andisheh Zahedi to give him one last hug.

“When we say bye, we just hug each other and normally shake hands. But at that time, it was so weird. He said, ‘Maybe it’s the last hug,’ ” said Zahedi, a PhD student in civil engineering at the University of Ottawa.

“He hugged so tight…I didn’t know it was the last hug. But it was the last hug.”

While travelling back to Canada after the holidays, Kashani, who had just turned 29 in September and was completing his PhD in chemistry, boarded Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in Tehran, Iran on Jan. 8. He was one of the 138 passengers on board who were on their way to Canada via Kiev, Ukraine.

Just minutes after its departure, the Ukrainian passenger flight carrying Kashani and 175 others was shot down by an Iranian missile, killing everyone on board.

“I was supposed to go to the airport to pick him up,” said Zahedi. “I’m still waiting for his texts telling me that he’s in Ukraine — that he’s in Toronto — to come pick him up in an hour.”

Like most friends and families of the victims, Zahedi said that he’s still struggling to cope with the tragedy.

“I haven’t believed that some person vanished all of the sudden,” he said. “Imagine, 24/7 you are together — it’s part of your family. It’s really hard.”

The two became close friends after meeting at a U of O orientation session for graduate students in 2017, where they also met their third roommate, who was also named Saeed.

“We are three: Me, Saeed and the other Saeed. Three roommates, like three brothers,” said Zahedi. “Whoever knows one of us knows the other two… if one of us goes (somewhere), the other two normally go as well.”

It only took two months for Zahedi to start calling the two “his brothers”.

“Thousands and thousands of memories…We have pictures of all three of us at home hanging on a wall,” he said. “As soon as you get inside the house, you see the pictures. It’s very hard. We haven’t gone home for a week.”

“We were a family of three and then we lost one. So we became two,” he added.

Caring, nice and kind were just some of the words that Zahedi used described Kashani. But above all, he said Kashani’s greatest quality was his “fun guy” attitude.

“He’s enjoying his life — literally he was enjoying his life,” he said.

Stephen Newman, an associate professor in chemistry and head of the U of O’s Newman Lab where Kashani worked for three years, described Kashani as a “genuine, fun, life-loving person.”

“He was a sharp, bright, kind, warm student who made pretty quick friends with everybody who was around him. He had a big smile on his face all the time,” said Newman.

He recalled one instance where Kashani rented a double tandem bike to help transport one lab member to a group outing in Mooney’s Bay for soccer and a picnic.

“He biked our postdoc from India down the Rideau Canal to get to the beach. Just a funny, easygoing attitude,” he said.

Newman also praised Kashani’s determined work ethic and his ability to persevere when research for his project became gruelling.

“He was definitely one of the most exceptional people at doing that, being able to keep an optimistic approach, lift the spirits of the people around him,” he said.

Eric Isbrandt, a PhD student in organic chemistry, worked alongside Kashani for three years in the Newman Lab and said that Kashani would always push him to do better.

“I’m going to remember him as somebody in the lab who would always believe in me, and really somebody who had a lot of spirit, and he had a lot of ambitions too,” said Isbrandt.

Like Zahedi and Newman, Isbrandt also emphasized how funny Kashani was, highlighting how he was able to make the people around him laugh at any given time.

“He’s one of the only people I know who could just break out singing — he was always singing in Farsi,” said Isbrandt. “But even from the first few days when he joined the lab, he was comfortable doing that in front of basically everyone. He was always playing his music in the lab, could always hear his music going. Very energetic.”

Isbrandt said that the lab is planning on putting a collage of pictures of Kashani above the empty space of his fume hood, accompanied by a plaque with his name printed on it.

“He would want us to just move ahead with our lives, to always remember him, but to realize that we just have to have to keep going and that life has to go on,” said Isbrandt.

When they’re ready to go back home, Zahedi said that he and his other roommate are also planning on setting up a memorial of their own in honour of Kashani.

“We leave a chair for him and we put his picture. He will be between us forever,” he said. “Maybe not physically, but he’s alive. He’s with us.”

Having pictures of Kashani all over the house isn’t easy, he continued, but he said that “we need to.”

“We need to be strong. There’s no other choice,” he said.

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