Nova Scotia

'They had the best months of their life': Kids thrived in Canada after escaping Syrian war

The Nova Scotia group that sponsored the Barho family is now focused on bringing close relatives to Canada to support the grieving parents who lost their seven children Tuesday in a house fire.

N.S. group trying to bring relatives of grieving parents to Canada for support

The funeral for the Barho children is open to the public, with mourners from all walks of life invited to pay tribute to the seven young lives lost in a Halifax house fire on Feb. 19. (Submitted)

They loved swimming and playing soccer and even riding the school bus. They loved skating — something they thought of as "really Canadian." They loved dancing, too, especially to that modern earworm, Baby Shark.

"They're amazing kids," said Leno Ribahi, president of the group that brought the Barho family to Nova Scotia as Syrian refugees in 2017.

Then he corrects himself.

"They were amazing kids."

The seven Barho children — three-month-old Abdullah; Rana, 2; Hala, 3; Ola, 8; Mohamad, 9; Rola, 12; and Ahmed, 14 — died Tuesday morning after a fire swept through their Halifax home.

Ebraheim Barho holding daughter Hala shortly after arriving at the Halifax airport in September 2017. (Enfield Weekly Press)

Their father, Ebraheim, is in critical condition in an induced coma. Their mother, Kawthar, was not physically injured. Ebraheim ran back into the burning home to try to save the children after sending his wife to a neighbour's to get help. 

The Barho family's life in Canada would have likely been unimaginable to them before they arrived.

"They had the best 14, 15 months of their life," said Ribahi of the children.

Before their arrival in Canada, the family, who were from the war-torn Syrian city of Raqqa, lived briefly in Damascus and then moved to Beirut, where they lived in a one-bedroom house.

Kawthar Barho and four of her children (from left to right; Rola, Rana, Ola and Ahmed) after they arrived at the Halifax airport in Sept. 2017. (Enfield Weekly Press)

​While Kawthar looked after the kids, Ebraheim did electrical work, a departure from his previous employment as a truck driver, taxi driver and bakery worker.

Even Ahmed worked long days, cleaning at a barbershop and at a supermarket.

After the boy came to Canada, he kept asking Ribahi if he could work.

"He thought this is what you should do. That's all he knew," Ribahi said.

When Ribahi's group, the Hants East Assisting Refugee Team Society (HEART), saw the family on the list of people available for refugee sponsorship, they knew it was the right match. They wanted to make a big difference for a big family.

The Gargan family of Halifax paid their respects at the Barho family's home on Wednesday. Many people have been leaving flowers and stuffed animals outside the home in memory of the children. (Robert Short/CBC)

Waiting for their arrival was like awaiting the birth of a baby, say Ribahi and Natalie Horne, another member of HEART.

And that day — "a perfect day," said Horne — lived up to their expectations.

"They were so excited and they were this beautiful, shiny, happy family who were so grateful to have had the opportunity to start a new life in Canada," Horne said.

A large contingent of well-wishers waited at the airport, and a convoy of vehicles brought the family to their new home in Elmsdale. The local newspaper, the Enfield Weekly Press, posted a video of their arrival at the Halifax airport. 

They moved to the house in Halifax's Spryfield neighbourhood in 2018, but planned to move back to Elmsdale on March 1 because the kids missed their old schools and the support they had from the community. 

The generosity of Canadians who welcomed them and supported them was something they couldn't quite get over, said Ribahi.

"That was their biggest question: 'Why would the people do that?' And the answer was, 'We like to share what we have here.'"

The day after they got here, HEART held a party for the family and Ribahi made everyone sing Happy Birthday four times — once for each of the four kids who had recently celebrated a birthday.

Little things, like getting Halloween treats or being able to ride their bikes on the streets without fear, meant a lot to the children.

They were this beautiful, shiny, happy family who were so grateful to have had the opportunity to start a new life in Canada.- Natalie Horne

"What we take for granted was big for them," Ribahi said. "Just enjoying being a kid, something they never enjoyed too much there in the last few years of their life before they arrived to Canada."

Horne said the tragedy still doesn't feel real to her and the group members who are mourning for the family.

Right now, the group is focusing on trying to bring other immediate family members over from Lebanon, including Kawthar's mother and brother.

"It's going to be an incredibly long road to recovery for both parents," said Horne. 

She said the group is thankful for the support that has flooded in from across the country. But she cautioned the need for help will continue for a long time.

"They're going to need support in six months, in a year and two years because this isn't going away for them.... So I just hope that people continue to keep the Barhos and this family in their heart long after it's left the headlines."

With files from Shaina Luck