Ebraheim and Kawthar Barho grew up in the same neighbourhood near Raqqah, Syria—both from families of farmers in a community of cotton farms on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River.
Theirs was not an arranged marriage. When Kawthar was 15 and Ebraheim 22, they asked their parents for permission to wed. The celebration with extended family and friends included a feast of falafel, tabbouleh, pita and hummus, bottomless cups of Pepsi and 7-Up, and dancing and singing to traditional music. It marked the beginning of a promising future together. They shared a dream of raising a family with lots of children, joy and laughter.
It started out that way. Kawthar gave birth to Ahmad within the year. Rola came next, about two years later. Then, three years later, Mohamad, and Ola the following year. During these first years of marriage, Kawthar devoted herself to the children while Ebraheim worked three jobs—driving tourists on a double-decker bus to Mecca and in a transport truck to countries that border the Persian Gulf, as well as cutting hair at a barber shop and baking bread.
When civil war erupted in 2013, Raqqah became a bloodied battleground seized by the Islamic State. As once-safe streets became a war zone of whizzing bullets and daily explosions, the family fled to Lebanon, moving into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Bchamoun, a suburb of Beirut, where Hala was born. At night, they rolled bedding onto the floor and slept elbow-to-elbow. While the family waited for more than two years to emigrate to Canada, Ebraheim took construction jobs while Ahmad, the eldest, worked in a grocery store stocking shelves and cleaning for up to 14 hours a day. They relied on food vouchers—$17.80 per person per month—from the United Nations.
Meanwhile, across the North Atlantic Ocean, a community group 30 minutes’ drive north of Halifax pored over a list of Syrian families seeking refuge in Canada. Leno Ribahi, president of the Hants East Assisting Refugees Team (HEART), told Maclean’s he chose the Barho family because they were so large, with seven members. (Rana was born in Lebanon after the family was sponsored.) “We wanted to help the family most in need,” he said.
The Barho family thought the worst time of their lives was over. On Sept. 27, 2017, their sponsors gathered at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, greeting the Barhos like rock stars as they descended an airport escalator. A crowd cheered and waved giant cut-out red maple leafs. Ebraheim and Kawthar, each carrying a child, beamed as they shook hands with those who would soon become their “Canadian family.” Ribahi was the first to pick up Hala, who was by then a toddler. “She kept hugging me and hugging me,” he said. “She had her face in my neck and was laughing.”
The family moved into a small yellow home with dark-green trim and a gabled roof in the rural community of Elmsdale, a 30-minute drive north of Halifax. Ebraheim, who had been handed a small Canadian flag at the airport, attached it at the back of the home, where he would see it every time he came and went. “The Canada flag was important to them,” said family friend Norma MacIntyre. “It meant safety. It meant their new home.”
Accustomed to sleeping en masse, at bedtime the children snuggled up on the living room floor, a habit they kept up for the first few weeks. The next 17 months brought some of the best days of the Barho children’s lives. They pedalled bicycles up and down their dirt driveway. There were birthday parties with brightly coloured cakes and candles, and trips to a swimming pool with a gargantuan waterslide. They took wagon rides into apple orchards, careened down snow-covered hills on skis and gathered at the roadside to cheer on local parades. Their willingness to embrace all that came their way in this new foreign life was relentless.
Ahmad, a teenager, always made people laugh; Rola, 12, was the mother hen of the crew, taking care of her younger siblings; nine-year-old Mohamad was a natural athlete who immediately took to ice skating and caught a baseball the first time he slipped on a glove; Ola, 8, loved to dance, especially to Baby Shark; three-year-old Hala was the queen of the family with a big personality to match; Rana, 2, with her trademark grin, was like a baby doll with perfect chubby cheeks, curly hair, long eyelashes and dimples.
“They never fought with each other,” said Ashley Googoo, whose children played with the Barho kids. “It was just amazing to see how well they took care of each other and how much they wanted to do for each other.”
The children picked up English easily, quickly outpacing their parents. It was for this reason—to access English-as-a-second-language services and other new immigrant programs—that the family moved to the city, to an enclave of newly constructed homes in Spryfield, a suburb of Halifax.
When Kawthar found out she was pregnant with their “Canadian baby,” the girls hoped for a new sister, while the boys wanted another boy. Kawthar gave birth to Abdullah, a perfect baby boy with a cap of soft, dark hair and a sweet disposition on Nov. 9.
Even with a beloved new baby to distract them, the Barho children missed their small-town life in Elmsdale—their friends, their close-knit school, the welcoming neighbours who invited them to sit on their chair swing and fixed the chains on their bicycles. The family began making arrangements to move back to the little yellow house, where Ebraheim’s small Canadian flag remained, tucked behind the drainpipe. Midway through February, Rola started counting down the days.
On Feb. 19, just after midnight on one of the coldest nights of the winter, Kawthar came downstairs to get a bottle for the baby when she noticed the sofa was on fire. She called for Ebraheim. He told her to go ask the neighbours for help and he would put out the fire. Within minutes, a ferocious fire ripped through the second storey of the home. Ebraheim rushed to try to save his children, sustaining severe burns to 80 per cent of his body, while neighbours restrained a hysterical Kawthar on the lawn. That night, all seven of the Barho children perished in their beds.
Electrical engineers combed the charred debris for clues into what started the tragic fire. An investigation into the cause is ongoing.
After the tragedy, the group that sponsored the family released a statement expressing “deep heartbreak.” “Many people, far too many to name, helped bring the Barho family to East Hants and get settled,” the group said. “For the past year and a half, the children have been able to enjoy life as kids should be able to . . . They loved every minute of it, and it seems impossible we won’t hear their laughter and feel their hugs again.”