When Ebraheim and Kawthar Barho landed at Halifax Stanfield International Airport with their children in September 2017, strangers lined up to give them a round of applause. The Syrian refugee family had survived civil war and the near-total destruction of their hometown of Raqqa, and then, in a stroke of luck, had been sponsored for resettlement in Canada.
As they rode down the escalator to the arrivals area of the airport, smiling with undisguised joy, their new neighbors cheered and waved giant maple leaf cutouts. “Aren’t they precious?” one woman could be heard saying as the wide-eyed toddlers, dressed in beanie hats and ski coats in anticipation of the Canadian cold, clutched tight to their parents’ arms.
It seemed like a happy ending - until early Tuesday morning, when a fire tore through the family's new suburban-style home on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving it a charred wreck. All seven children, ranging in age from 4 months old to 15, died.
Ebraheim Barho, 39, was badly injured while trying to rescue the children from the burning building and is in critical condition, according to the group that sponsored the family for resettlement. Kawthar, 40, survived with minimal injuries but was said to be in shock after losing her children.
"It is very hard for her," an imam from the mosque that the family attends told the Globe and Mail. "She doesn't have anyone left. So pray for her and for her husband to survive."
Authorities are currently investigating the cause of the fire, which was reported at 12:41 a.m. Tuesday, but Halifax Fire Deputy Chief Dave Meldrum told the Globe and Mail that there was no sign of suspicious activity so far.
A neighbor told reporters that she had heard a loud bang, followed by the sound of a woman screaming, and had rushed outside into the freezing night with her children to see what was going on. What she found was a harrowing scene.
"There was just flames just roaring out of their back doors, back windows, everything," neighbor Danielle Burt told CTV. Kawthar Barho was prostrate on the grass with her head bowed as if in prayer. She begged Burt to call 911, telling her that their kids were still inside.
"The dad was sitting on the steps," Burt added. "I think he had gone back in because he was really burnt. It was just awful."
Another neighbor, David Beaton, told the Globe and Mail that neighbors had to pin back Barho's arms and hold the mother in place to prevent her from running inside the burning house. "She was totally hysterical," he said. "It is something that will forever burn in my brain."
The Barho family had fled Syria's civil war before coming to Canada less than two years ago, Imam Wael Haridy of the Nova Scotia Islamic Community Centre told the Chronicle Herald. Raqqa, the once-prosperous city where they lived in northern Syria, was captured by opposition fighters in 2013. Over time, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took control of the city and began forcing local children to join their army. A scorched-earth campaign led by the United States eventually forced ISIS to abandon its self-proclaimed capital, but by then, repeated airstrikes had reduced the city to rubble.
Haridy told HalifaxToday that Kawthar Barho’s parents are still in Syria, leaving her to face the loss of her seven children alone. “Her mother called her and she was crying telling her mom, ‘I lost all of my kids, mom. We escaped the war and tragedy in Syria to come here to die,’” he said.
The Barhos had been sponsored by the Hants East Assisting Refugee Team Society, or HEART Society, which was founded in the fall of 2015 as hundreds of thousands of migrants fled war-torn Syria. Under Canadian law, groups comprised of five or more Canadian citizens can raise money to sponsor refugees who then are resettled in their local community. Those volunteer coalitions work to help the newly-arrived refugees learn English, enroll in school, get jobs, and adjust to life in their new homes, while also assisting with practical necessities like finding furniture and warm clothing.
"Many people, far too many to name, helped bring the Barho family to East Hants and get settled," the group said in a statement expressing "deep heartbreak" on Tuesday. "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."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed condolences to the family on Twitter. "Words fail when children are taken from us too soon, especially in circumstances like this," he wrote.
The Ummah Masjid and Community Center, a mosque where the family worshiped, identified the seven children who died as Abdullah, 4 months; Rana, 3; Hala, 4; Ghala, 8; Mohammed, 10; Rola, 12; and Ahmed, 15.
“It’s devastating to think this is a family that came to potentially to Canada for a better life,” Brendan Maguire, who represents Halifax in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, told the CBC. He added, "I can’t even imagine what they’re going through right now. "