Editors’ Note: The students mentioned in this article chose not to be named to prevent potential threats to their families and friends back in Iran. The pseudonyms of these individuals are noted with an asterisk on first reference.
A group of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Iranian students braved freezing temperatures to huddle in a circle on the evening of Jan. 14.
Aside from the music playing, they stood in silence. Surrounded by several candles and photographs, they remembered the 176 people who died in a plane crash caused by their government a week earlier.
Despite being an ocean away, the students wanted to speak up for their families who could not in Iran and unite both Iranian students and the UNL community.
“We wanted to show to other UNL students that this is the reality of what is going on,” Nima* said. “Those poor people...they got killed by their own government, and they just wanted to come to [another] country where they could succeed.”
Two missiles shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 on Jan. 8, killing all on board, according to the BBC and The New York Times. The Iranian regime later admitted on Jan. 11 that its military had unintentionally shot down the plane.
Many of the victims in the crash were students, according to BBC, and the UNL students’ tribute was to help them grieve and unite.
“They were [the] same as us,” Ali* said. “If I was coming to [the] U.S. then and I was in that airplane and they were hitting with missiles, I would have died too. Without any reason.”
He said many UNL students did not previously grasp the severity of the crash, but the memorial allowed them to instill understanding about the situation.
“Everybody I saw that night, after realizing what happened, they were really sad,” the student said.
Ali said they received approval from UNL on Monday to set up the memorial the next day. If the same memorial had been put up at a university in Iran, students would have been at a high risk of being imprisoned, according to the student.
The memorial gave mourners the chance to cry about the tragedy and come together as a culture, according to Ali.
“If you want to cry, you should cry with others because it causes you to be a little more relaxed,” he said. “It was a big loss — they were the genius people from my country.”
Organizers of the memorial sympathized with students lost in the plane crash after many had left Iran for an education. Ali said he believed many of the victims had chosen to leave their country in search of a better life not possible under the Iranian regime.
“Every night, in your dreams, you are seeing your family, but you don’t have any other choice, so you leave your country,” Ali said.
The people living in Iran do not have the same freedoms as citizens living in the United States, and Nima said the Iranian people suffer because of the actions of their politicians. The memorial was a chance for the students to grieve together and honor their fallen Iranians.
“The only thing we can do is to be active on social media and try to have a memorial for the people who were in that plane crash and to show that we are not happy with Iran and what happened to those people,” he said. “Even the Iranian people, in Iran, they want to do something. This is hard for them because … they get killed and their families get taken hostage. Because of all of these issues, we cannot do much.”
When tensions rise between the United States and Iran, it is usually civilians who pay the price, according to Tyler White, associate professor of practice of political science and deputy director of UNL’s National Security Studies program. Students may feel that the conflict is logical, he said, but he felt students should challenge that idea.
“This is just another reminder that the political differences between Iran and the United States really stand in the way of, potentially, really good cooperation and an opportunity for these people to not have politics be the thing driving their studies, driving their decisions they’re making in their lives,” he said. “It’s got to be a strain put on them at all times.”
The two students who assisted in designing the memorial said they believe every person matters. According to Ali, the only difference between UNL students and the victims of the plane crash was the geographic location and the fact that they did not have the same freedoms. At the end of the day, he said “just one life was important for the whole world.”
“They were students. They were people. They were like me, like others,” he said. “The only difference was that they were born in Iran.”