‘I look forward to seeing them:’ Toronto man who lost family in Iran crackdown talks about his grief

Habib Haghjoo can not look at the only two photographs in his living room in his home in east Toronto. But he can not bring himself to take them down.

Nothing else hangs on the walls of that room in his impeccably clean home.

The photographs show his daughter, Saharnaz Haghjoo, 37, and his eight-year-old granddaughter, Elsa Jadidi, smiling broadly as they embrace.

The couple was on board a Ukrainian International Airlines plane shot down by Iranian forces two years ago, on January 8, 2020. More than 100 of the 176 people killed in the crash were affiliated with Canada.

Habib Haghjoo says he feels stuck in time and hopes he can just have one more minute with his girls as he calls them.

“I’m looking forward to seeing them,” he says, tears streaming down his eyes as he grabs an empty cup of tea. “If I look at the picture, or bring a memory to my mind, it starts to hurt deeply.”

The 65-year-old cannot watch videos of them or flip through old photos as it would hurt to say to do so.

Family, friends and strangers sent him pictures of his daughter and granddaughter after their deaths. After a while, he threw them all except the two that are left.

“Maybe I’ll put them away one day, but not right now,” he says.

He is still stuck in the violence of his grief.

“I’m stuck in the anger stage, I’m just so angry,” he says. “The regime murdered them, murdered them in the worst possible way.”

Lately, he has also been stuck inside his home. Ontario’s recent round of pandemic restrictions has left him without access to his beloved pool at the local YMCA. The exercise helped him immediately after the tragedy, he says.

“I cried and swam … it helped a lot,” Haghjoo says. “Then came the pandemic and shut everything down.”

Two years later, the pool closes again. He has lost the only way he can really train with his bad back. And he lost the community there, he says.

“It’s hard,” he says.

Haghjoo, a computer programmer, left Iran in 1987 for Ireland. One day while waiting for a meeting, he visited the Canadian embassy.

He read a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and fell in love. After four years in Ireland, he, his wife and his four daughters traveled to Canada. They settled in Richmond Hill, Ont.

He landed in the middle of a recession and it was hard to find work in his field, so he took a job at a car dealership.

In 1997, his wife, Shahnaz, died of a rare case of meningitis at the age of 37, the same age as his daughter was when she died.

“I tried to be the best dad and the best mom I could be,” he says.

Saharnaz Haghjoo

In 2009, exhausted from his job at the car dealership, he left and became a real estate agent, giving him more flexible working hours.

He has not worked since the plane crash. He says he’s not ready.

“I’m not rich, but I can pay my bills,” he says.

He is depressed and anxious. He forgets what he said. He eats a little.

But he has managed a few things in the last two years. He and Siamak Jadidi, Saharnaz’s husband, helped build an elementary school in Elsa’s name in a poor part of Iran in Lorestan province.

“I think when people are educated, they will not be fooled by those in power and exploited,” he says. “Building a school and educating kids, that’s what will win in the end. That’s how I get revenge.”

He also helps translate news articles into English for a website started by another family who lost loved ones in the tragedy. The site Rissmaan.com highlights human rights violations in Iran.

Haghjoo used to practice Islam, but gave up religion. He visited his daughter and grandson’s graves twice after the plane crash, but then stopped walking. Last summer, however, he was pulled back to the cemetery and has since visited a handful of times.

“When I finish my visit, I can not open my eyes because I cry so much,” he says, “but it helps, it does.”

Two years after the tragedy, Haghjoo says he is trying to focus on his family – he has four daughters and eight grandchildren, and he will never stop counting Saharnaz and Elsa among them, he says.

His partner of 15 years is also a huge help.

And he tries to focus on the fond memories of his daughter and granddaughter.

“Saharnaz was my little one, she was very small, very small, she was like a little pepper that is very hot, she was very active,” he says. His daughter worked as a program manager at YWCA and helped new immigrant women adapt to the country.

“And Elsa, she was a helper just like her mother, she was going to be a tough, strong woman.”

He smiles at the memories.

Then his face changes.

“Sometimes I feel like my daughter is hugging me,” Haghjoo says and his voice catches. “I can feel her hugging me, hugging me. The good memories are also sometimes very painful.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published January 7, 2022.

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