U of G loses two bright lights in airliner tragedy

The University of Guelph mourned the loss of two brilliant and beloved PhD students in January.

Ghanimat Azhdari and Milad Ghasemi Ariani lost their lives in the Ukraine International Airlines disaster on Jan. 8. The airliner was shot down by the Iranian military during heightened political tensions, killing all 176 on-board, including 57 Canadians.

Both Azhdari and Ariani were international graduate students from Iran, and both were returning to Guelph to resume their studies following family holidays in their native country.

Ghanimat Azhdari
Ghanimat Azhdari

U of G president Franco Vaccarino expressed the collective grief of the campus community.

“We are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic loss of two of our students,” he says. “Our thoughts go out to the families of these two students and to anyone else affected by this tragedy. Any loss to our campus community touches all of us.”

Born in southwestern Iran, Ghanimat Azhdari, 36, was from the nomadic Indigenous Qashqai tribe. She was internationally recognized for her dedication to protecting Indigenous peoples and their land. She was a graduate student in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, where she studied mapping and cataloguing of Iran’s Indigenous nomadic communities.

Azhdari was described by her PhD supervisor, Prof. Faisal Moola, as a “firecracker” with an “effervescent personality.” Prof. Noella Gray says “her energy and her positivity were infectious.”

Milad Ghasemi Ariani
Milad Ghasemi Ariani

Ariani was pursuing a PhD in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies. He was not only dedicated to excellence in his own studies but also committed to helping his classmates succeed in theirs. Prof. Towhid Islam noted that he was always willing to counsel and motivate fellow students.

“He was very friendly, he was easygoing,” Islam says. “He had a very bright future.”

Several hundred people attended a commemorative vigil held Jan. 10 at tragedy War Memorial Hall that included remarks from friends and colleagues.

“How will we continue without your beautiful laughter, your big heart and your amazing spirit?” said Emily Smit, a classmate of Azhdari’s.

The University established new scholarships to honour both students. Fundraising initiatives will begin to support them, and U of G will match donations up to $100,000. The scholarship honouring Ariani will come through the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics and will support an international graduate student. The scholarship named for Azhdari will be offered through the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences and will assist an Indigenous graduate student.