Edmonton's Iranian community has always been close, in good times and bad

Neda Asadi shows a visitor an old colour photograph taken at what she believes was the first Iranian community pavilion at Edmonton's annual Heritage Days festival. 

In the photo, Asadi, then 19 and in her first year at the University of Alberta, stands behind a table with her grandmother, who died last summer. 

"It was an amazing time," she said. "It was full of happiness and joy.

"We were a small community but people came together and got things done." 

Iran's Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines aircraft as it left Tehran on Jan. 8, killing 176 people on board, including 57 Canadians. Twelve of those passengers were from Edmonton. Most had a connection to the University of Alberta.

The tragedy focused attention on Edmonton's Iranian community, estimated to be around 5,000 people. 

The city was home to about 200 Iranians when Asadi arrived with her family in 1989.

Todd Korol/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Many Canadians and Americans, she said, thought of Iran in terms of the negative media coverage that resulted from the overthrow of the Shah in the 1979 revolution and the subsequent hostage taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

Asadi, then one of two Iranian students at Bonnie Doon High School, felt she needed to be an ambassador for the rich culture and history of her homeland. 

"Many hadn't even heard of the country except for the Iran-Iraq war or the Ayatollah," she said. "That's what they knew. So you sort of felt like, 'I need to say I'm Persian. I need to talk about my culture.'"

Iranians 'demonized'

That desire to educate and foster pride in the community served as the impetus in 1987 for the creation of the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton.

Fakhreddin Jamali, a professor emeritus in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Alberta, was one of the founders. Back then, he said, younger people told him they were ashamed to be Iranian, and the new organization wanted to counteract that attitude. 

Min Dhariwal/CBC

"Our aim then was to promote the culture and tell our kids that you don't have to be ashamed of being Iranian," he said. "That is how bad things were ... Iranian people had been demonized, in a way." 

Jamali is a bit of a pioneer in Edmonton's Iranian community, which also includes Reza Ressair, founder of Landmark Homes, and the Ghermezian family, developers and owners of West Edmonton Mall. 

Jamali first came to Canada in 1971 to continue his studies at the University of British Columbia after earning his doctor of pharmacy degree at the University of Tehran. He moved to Edmonton a decade later to teach at the U of A.

At the time, Jamali said he was a "novelty" as a professor of Iranian descent. That changed over the years as more Iranians came to Edmonton after the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and the oil and gas boom 15 years ago, which brought many Iranian-educated engineers to Alberta. 

The connection with the University of Alberta is particularly strong. 

David Turpin, president of the University of Alberta, reflected on the relationship in his address to at a memorial for those who died on Flight PS752.

Turpin said Iranian students started coming to the university in the 1970s. 

"Many of them, many of you, stayed and inspired more to follow in your footsteps," he said. "A generation later, the number of students coming to our campus began to double. Triple. Quadruple. Growing from only a few dozen in the early part of this century to nearly 500 today." 

Jamali said the Iranian diaspora is a relatively new concept. Before 1979, he said, Iranians tended not to immigrate. That changed with the Iranian revolution. 

"That is where immigration started and people started to migrate to other countries," Jamali said. "Every part of your life was controlled. Arguably, we did have more political freedom but no personal freedom, especially for women." 

Support from community 

Asadi said her parents moved to Canada so their daughters could be free to do what they wanted. 

After completing an undergraduate degree in science, Asadi earned her master's degree and PhD in educational studies at the University of Alberta. She was also involved with running the Iranian Heritage Society. 

Asadi is now a co-director of the Alberta Association for Migration Studies. 

Thirty years after coming to Edmonton, she said she finds it interesting to see how her Canadian-born children and the high-school and university age children of her friends are making their way in life. 

Peter Evans/CBC

"They reflect both on their Iranian identity, and also they are Canadian," she said. "They are an important part of the society.

"And that actually makes you feel really rooted and (that you) belong to this community." 

Both Jamali and Asadi say they appreciate the way other Canadians have responded to the aftermath of the Flight PS752 tragedy. 

"You felt like we are supported, we are truly part of this community," Asadi said. "It enabled us to grieve and to come together and to think of those who are not among us anymore."