Religious pilgrimage tour leader from Markham among those killed in Iran plane crash

Arif and Rehana Dhirani were expecting their parents' flights to land safely in Toronto Wednesday.

Instead, the siblings are in mourning — reeling from the news that their father is never coming home.

Markham man Asghar Dhirani was a respected tour leader for religious pilgrimages. He was among the 167 passengers who died when a Ukrainian International Airlines plane crashed minutes after takeoff from Tehran's main airport Wednesday.

Flight PS752 burst into flames, killing everyone on board, including 63 Canadians.

Afifa Tarbhai and her daughter Alina, who were part of Dhirani's tour group, were also among the dead.

Dhirani's wife Razia — who worked with her husband taking groups of Canadian Muslims for religious pilgrimages in Iraq, Iran and Syria several times a year — had been on the same trip, but landed safely on another flight home.

"My dad was my best friend," Rehana Dhirani told CBC News in a tearful phone interview Wednesday.

"He was selfless … he was a hero not only to me but to many people."

The crash has stunned the local Iranian community, which is one of the largest in North America.

Leading a journey

Asghar and Razia's tour groups regularly visited some of the most sacred shrines in Shia Islam. Friends and community members say the pair are deeply respected ziyarah (which means "visit" in Farsi and Arabic) group leaders in the Toronto Shia community, and have worked together to take more than 1,000 Muslims on these trips since 1994.

Arif Dhirani said his father felt joy connecting with his faith and having the chance to lead these journeys.

"I talked to him before he boarded his flight. He was missing home and I was missing him," Dhirani said.

"I was thinking after I hung up that I couldn't wait to see him and that I wanted to invite him for dinner."

Ali Al-Hilli/Facebook

Rehana said her father was "an amazing man.

"He loved his family and his faith and he loved helping people, [and] I'm not just saying that because he was my dad," she said.

Family members say the pair wanted to make sure they gave back to their community. The couple always organized visits to orphanages as part of their group tour, where pilgrims could donate money or clothing, Rehana added.

Grappling with tragedy

Just as the Dhirani family has been blindsided, Afifa and Alina Tarbhai's friends and family are trying to make sense of the tragedy.

Fatima Tarbhai said her aunt Afifa loved Canada, and was incredibly patriotic.

"Even if you bought her [something Canadian] from the dollar store she would be super excited," she said. "Any Canadian accessory, she was happy to have it."

Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Alina Tarbhai was an administrative clerk at the Toronto office of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

"She was respected and well-liked by all. Her passing represents a profound loss for all of us who worked with her," OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said in a statement.

Family friend Sajida Habib told CBC News that Alina Tarbhai also used to volunteer as a teacher at a weekend Islamic school and mosque in Thornhill, Ont., and worked with special needs children.

"She was a lovely, lovely girl. Such a calm personality," she said.

Fatima Tarbhai said her cousin was extremely enthusiastic about Canadian sports — the Toronto Raptors, especially.

"Whatever she was involved in … her level of commitment was something else," she said.

Ali-Hassan Panju, another cousin of Alina's, told CBC that he is left remembering a message from the mother and daughter in their family WhatsApp group chat before they left for the trip.

"They sent out messages asking us to forgive them for anything they said or did that may have hurt someone," he said.

Asking relatives and friends for forgiveness is a common practice for Muslims before departing on religious pilgrimages. 

"I remember reading that and thinking that they were doing this a bit more formally," Panju said. 

"It was a little bit strange in the sense that I felt, 'It's not like they're going away [forever].'"

adam.carter@cbc.ca