Supportive and fun: Victoria student from Iran was 'always willing to help'

This is part of a series on the B.C. victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which crashed near Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 8, 2020, killing all 176 people on board.

At 23 years old, Roja Omidbakhsh made the long flight last August from her home in Tehran to Canada, where she would begin her new life as a commerce student at the University of Victoria.

One of her closest friends at the university, first-year biology student Mobina Rafieipour, said Omidbakhsh's plan was to continue her father's business back home.

"Her father wanted her to study at a good university," said Rafieipour.

Photo submitted by Mobina Rafieipour
Photo submitted by Mobina Rafieipour

But on Wednesday, Jan. 8, those plans came to a tragic end.

Rafieipour and Nasim Hadadi, another close friend, were exercising at the school gym when Rafieipour received a text message from her former high school teacher, wanting to know that she and her family were safe.

There'd been a devastating airplane crash — Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 had fallen from the sky just after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers on board, including 57 Canadians.

Rafieipour "burst into tears" remembering right then, that Omidbakhsh had been on the flight.

She was always supportive

"She was a smart girl who always knew how to communicate with others effectively," said Rafieipour. She'd met Omidbakhsh in August, just before their flight to Canada.

"Whenever we were going through a hard time, she helped us. She had a mature mind and treated me well."

Like many international students, Omidbakhsh missed home and spent a lot of time in her dorm room connecting online with her friends in Tehran. Before she flew home for the holidays, she'd moved off campus and into a nice apartment, where a friend planned to fly from Iran to move in with her.

Nasim Hadidi, a first-year science student, said Omidbakhsh was five years older than Rafieipour and herself and would act playful and fun to connect with her younger friends. She was also intelligent and confident, willing to help the pair on class assignments for courses she wasn't even enrolled in.

3 women adapting to Victoria life

The three would often explore downtown Victoria, shopping at the Bay Centre and walking the Johnson Street Bridge. Rafieipour said Roja devised a secret word, "Columbus," for whenever they'd see another Iranian person who might understand their conversations in Persian.

"It was the signal that we needed to be careful [with] our words," said Rafieipour with a laugh.

Roja Omidbakhsh/LinkedIn
Roja Omidbakhsh/LinkedIn

Hadadi said the three Iranian students were working together to adjust to life in a city with such a small Iranian community. They had taken part in a few social events held by the school's Iranian Student Association.

Hadadi said the last time she spoke with Omidbakhsh was over text messages on Jan. 2, where they expressed how excited they were to spend time together upon Omidbakhsh's return to Victoria.

Rafieipour remembers her friend's final words to her the night before her failed flight back to Canada.

"She had some questions about the deadline to add or drop courses. I gave her the wrong information [by accident]," she said.

A vigil held for the crash victims

Omidbakhsh's first year commerce professor, Mark Colgate, said in a statement "Roja was very positive and had a keen interest in marketing ... we're heartbroken that this happened."

On Jan. 9, the Graduate Student Society at UVic held a public vigil to remember her and the rest of the crash victims. Rafieipour said she and Hadadi did not attend, as they were struggling emotionally.

"It's really hard to believe that she's never coming back," said Rafieipour. "Thankfully, I have [Hadadi] beside me, and we are going through this together."

She wants the world to know that Omidbakhsh was a good, supportive friend.

"The type of person this world needs … to be a better place," she said.

Omidbakhsh leaves behind her parents, Omid and Maryam Omidbakhsh and her nine-year-old sister Rozhina.