The grief-stricken wails of a mother who lost all seven of her children in a Halifax house fire echoed through a conference hall packed with more than 4,000 mourners as a line of small white coffins were wheeled into the building.
Kawthar Barho, 30, sobbed and gasped with audible pain as the remains of her children, who ranged in age from four months to 14 years, were escorted past her by an honour guard comprised of white-gloved Halifax fire and police personnel on Saturday.
Ahmed, Rola, Mohammed, Ola, Hala, Rana and Abdullah Barho died early last Tuesday after a fast-moving fire ravaged their family’s suburban rental home in a community of Halifax known as Spryfield. Their father, Ebraheim, 39, was critically injured while trying to rescue them and remains in hospital. Fire investigators are still working to determine the cause of the blaze.
Although she was surrounded by close friends, including members of the Hants East Assisting Refugees Team Society (HEART), which sponsored the Barhos’ immigration to Canada in 2017, Ms. Barho was the only member of her family to attend the funeral. Deputy Premier Karen Casey spoke directly to Ms. Barho, who asked that no one photograph or approach her.
“Remember, we will not abandon you. We will not leave you alone,” Ms. Casey said. “We will travel this journey with you. Please accept our love.”
The public service, which was conducted in English and Arabic, drew people from across Nova Scotia. Sight of the white coffins at the outset of the service brought hundreds of people in the standing-room-only hall to tears. Even officiants were overcome with emotions.
“I have done many funerals. But nothing like this,” said Imam Hamza Mangera. “Please, bear with me.”
Looking exhausted with grief, nine members of the HEART Society linked arms to support each other on stage while the group’s vice president and spokesperson, Natalie Horne, stepped forward.
“We see the best of humanity when we look out into the sea of faces in front of us,” she said. “We are grateful to Kawthar and Ebraheim for sharing their family with us these past sixteen months. Our lives were enriched as a result of our relationship with you and your children.
“We love them and we love you,” she said, adding: “Even though we are no replacement for your family that is overseas, we are … part of your Canadian family.”
Ms. Horne, a high school teacher, said earlier this week that HEART’s members and the Barhos grew close even before the family immigrated to Canada, communicating over FaceTime for nearly two years to get to know one another.
“All the little faces would pop up on the phone,” Ms. Horne said. “They had so many firsts with us.”
Those included celebrating birthdays, which the children had never done before. Halloween, ice skating, pool parties and, for Kawthar, her first-ever baby shower.
Abdullah, the baby, was born last October, Ms. Horne said the Barho’s “made their intentions known” that they wanted to have at least one baby in Canada. Four of their children were born in Syria and two were born in Lebanon.
Although the family initially settled in Elmsdale, a rural community outside of Halifax where HEART is based, they moved last fall to Spryfield for better access to language training and other newcomer services. The week their house burned down they had planned to return to Elmsdale, Ms. Horne said, because their children missed their friends.
Reminiscing earlier this week, Ms. Horne said that Ahmed, 14, spent much of his time in Canada learning how to be a kid.
“In Lebanon, he worked to support his family,” she said, adding that he was not going to school. “Here, he got to be a kid. That’s what we wanted for him.”
Rola, 12, was “the mother of the group”, Ms. Horne said. She loved to swim, worked hard at English and even won a citizenship award at school last year.
Mohammed was nine. “He had the kindest heart and the warmest smile,” Ms. Horne said, adding that he was a natural athlete when it came to flipping over monkey bars or kicking a soccer ball.
Ola, 8, loved to dance. “She would put music on and every adult in the room would be pulled up to dance,” Ms. Horne said.
Hala, 3, was physically the smallest Barho before baby Abdullah was born. “She was a big ball of energy in a very small package,” Ms. Horne said. “And she was the boss of everyone. She did not like to be left behind.”
Rana, 2, was just 10 months old when the family arrived in Canada. With dimples, chubby cheeks and big, brown eyes, she made an immediate impression.
Ms. Horne said Mr. Barho was “always ready with a smile and a joke. He said ‘thank you’ more than any person I know,” she said.
Ms. Barho, Ms. Horne said, was happy when she was treated to rare trips out on her own – her Canadian friends often tried to give her a break from household tasks by stopping for ice cream after a doctors’ appointment or some other small pleasure. But she was most happy with her children.
“It was really hard to get her to step away from those children,” Ms. Horne said. “They were so attached to her.”
A convey of seven black hearses carried the children to the Muslim cemetery in Halifax following the service. Ms. Barho followed behind after Dr. Jamal Badawi offered his final condolences. In those, he asked God to “give the children a home in paradise that was better than their home on earth.”