Syrian family caught in fire thought they would be safe in Canada
HALIFAX -- At 30 years of age, Syrian refugee Kawthar Barho had seen her share of suffering and death before she came to Canada with her family.
Together with her husband Ebraheim and their children, she fled the northern city of Raqqa, where Islamic State militants had established their provisional capital.
"This is one of the most devastated cities in Syria," says Imam Abdallah Yousri of the Ummah Mosque in Halifax. "It has been totally destroyed."
The Barhos arrived in Nova Scotia in September 2017, and thought they would be safe in Canada.
Early Tuesday, fire raced through their new home in Halifax, killing seven children and burning Ebraheim Barho so badly that he remained in critical condition in hospital on Wednesday.
Halifax's Muslim community is now preparing for a funeral at the mosque for the couple's children: Ahmad, 14; Rola, 12; Mohamad, 9; Ola, 8; Hala, 3; Rana, 2 and Abdullah, who was born in Canada on Nov. 9.
"They thought that they were fleeing from the war over there to be safe here, and they ended up as if they were back there," says Yousri, who has been offering support to Kawthar Barho since the early morning fire.
"It is a tragedy for her, for us, for everybody."
Yousri says the young woman remains in a state of shock.
"She is in terrible condition right now," says Yoursi. "She keeps thinking this is the time for her to breastfeed (Abdullah). She keeps calling him."
The family moved to the Halifax neighbourhood of Spryfield only five months ago, having left the more rural community of Elmsdale, N.S. -- but the transition wasn't working out, despite a warm welcome from neighbours.
The large family was among 1,795 Syrian refugees who have come to Nova Scotia in recent years.
However, Yousri says it would appear that only the Barhos came from Raqqa.
"They don't even have friends here," he says. "They feel lonely here, without any relatives, without any friends."
Spryfield resident Nicole Snook, whose home is just down the street from where the Barhos lived, said she and other neighbours reached out to the family, but the language barrier got in the way.
"We baked them cookies at Christmas, gave a gift for the baby and talked to the kids on the street," she said as her toddler fussed in her arms.
"The kids were very active. They were always out on the street playing."
Photos from Facebook show the Barhos enjoying a fall trip to a local farm. A picture of three-year-old Hala shows her smiling as she hugs a small pumpkin. A photograph of 12-year-old Rola show her holding a Student of the Month certificate from the Riverside Education Centre in Milford, N.S.
Snook says she was particularly taken with the oldest girl, Rola, whose mastery of English and outgoing demeanour made her a pleasure to talk to.
"I was blown away by her -- she was beautiful," says Snook.
"You could tell she was an exceptional human being. She had an openness and a real social nature ... She wasn't bold, it was more like a healthy assertiveness ... She struck me as someone who would go far in life with such an indomitable spirit."
Snook recalled how polite the children were when they showed up at her doorstep on Halloween.
"I was struck by their willingness and openness to engage in conversation," Snook says, adding that their kindness and poise seemed remarkable for children who had endured a vicious civil war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives since 2011.
At first, the family lived in Elmsdale, where they received support from the Hants East Assisting Refugees Team, the Nova Scotia group that sponsored their refugee claim. The Barhos lived there for a year, then moved to Spryfield to be closer to refugee support services, such as English-language training.
But the children missed their old school and the friends they had made there, so the plan was to move back to Elmsdale next week.
The Hants East group said in a Facebook post: "For the past year and a half, the children have been able to enjoy life as kids should be able to: going to school, riding bicycles, swimming, having friends, running in the yard, celebrating birthday parties and hanging out with the neighbours on their porch swing. They loved every minute of it, and it seems impossible we won't hear their laughter and feel their hugs again."
Yousri says he has been receiving calls for support from around the world.
"We appreciate that sympathy and help," he says. "We're trying out best to focus on the wife and help her as much as we can."