‘They were the example’: friends, Winnipeg’s Muslim community mourn deaths of 3 students

Friends and Winnipeg’s Muslim community in general are mourning the loss of three international university students who died in a car crash Thursday morning, while returning from a trip to see the northern lights.

A car travelling north on Highway 7 collided with a southbound car about 10 kilometres south of Arborg, Man., a town about 115 kilometres north of Winnipeg, just before 6:30 a.m. Thursday, RCMP say.

The driver of the northbound car, a 53-year-old woman, sustained serious but non-life threatening injuries and was sent to hospital in Winnipeg. The three young men in the southbound car — Al Numan Aditta, Aranoor Azad Chowdhury and Risul Badhon — were pronounced dead at the scene.

“They were some of the best people I had ever come across. True mentors,” said friend Fardeen Zareef.

“For the entire community, it’s a major loss. We’re all in mourning right now because it’s a connected community and everyone knew them.”

Two of the students were 23 years old, but police did not have an age for the third. Each was originally from Bangladesh and attended classes at the University of Manitoba.

Chowdhury was a positive third-year student studying statistics, Badhon was a hard-working third-year studying accounting and supply chain at the Asper School of Business, and Aditta was “a sweetheart” studying agriculture, said Zareef.

The three men had packed up and driven north with three other cars to try to see the aurora borealis, Zareef said. On the way back, two cars had driven ahead, while the car with the three students and the fourth car stopped for gas.

Aditta, Chowdhury and Badhon continued on while the people in the fourth car chose to eat breakfast first, he said.

When the people riding in the fourth car hit the road again, they drove past the crash scene. One car was flipped over, said Zareef.

News about the crash came around 10:30 a.m. Thursday and the families were immediately contacted, said Abdul Ahad, president of the Muslim Student Association at the U of M.

“It took a little time to actually digest the whole situation, because it was a bit unbelievable, [and] in Bangladesh it [was] nighttime,” said Ahad.

The collision is still under investigation, but alcohol is not considered a factor, RCMP say.

‘They were the example’

Zareef met the three young men in Winnipeg in 2018 because they ran with the same crowd, he says.

“Over time, they became my closest friends — almost like brothers to me and this community.”

Chowdhury and Badhon were the same age as Zareef, but Aditta was “like an older brother” and the best cook Zareef knows, he said.

“We used to call him Chef Pablo,” he said, noting that Aditta’s nickname was Pablo.

Fardeen Zareef said he and his friends, from left, Risul Badhon, Al Numan Aditta and Aranoor Azad Chowdhury, had planned on graduating together this spring. (Submitted by Fardeen Zareef)

The four of them had planned on graduating together this spring, assuming the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t get in the way, Zareef said.

Ahad, who is also from Bangladesh, had met the three students in Winnipeg from 2016 to 2017. Ahad enjoys playing soccer and often competed in recreational tournaments with Chowdhury, Badhon and Aditta — who also loved soccer — and that’s how they got to know each other, he said.

International students tend to stick together because they don’t have other people, such as their parents, around for support, Ahad said. The three students, in their own ways, supported other members of the community and became “really respected and really loved,” he said.

“They were some of the best faces in our community. They were the example,” said Zareef.

“That is why our community and people who knew them are feeling their loss.”

The Manitoba Islamic Association — the province’s largest Muslim organization — is handling the funeral arrangements, and offering supports, including grief counselling, to anyone who needs it.

The U of M Muslim Students Association is looking to organize a remembrance ceremony for the three students and several other students who have died recently. It will also be speaking with university administration Friday to discuss organizing a vigil, said Ahad.