They lived for Halloween and Christmas, loved skating and apple picking.
“All of those children were so happy to be in Nova Scotia and they embraced the Canadian way of life,” said Leno Ribahi, president of Hants East Assisting Refugee Team Society.
Ribahi and the HEART Society had sponsored the Syrian family and they were there for their arrival at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport on Sept. 29, 2017.
For Ribahi, who immigrated to Nova Scotia from Lebanon 29 years ago, it was one of the best days of his life.
“To see them all smiling with all their belongings in one suitcase and some duffel bags, was an unforgettable moment for me, for all of us,” recalled Ribahi.
From there an unbreakable bond formed between the Elmsdale resident and the Barho family. He became the family’s next of kin. Ribahi recalls how proud Ebraheim and Kawthar Barho were to give birth to their seventh child, Abdullah, in Nova Scotia four months ago.
“They wanted so badly to have a Canadian baby and they did. That was a beautiful moment for them.”
Being the family’s next of kin, Ribahi was the first to get word of Tuesday morning’s unthinkable tragedy. The call came from Halifax Regional Police at 3 a.m. informing him that a fatal fire had ripped through the family’s Spryfield home. All seven children died, including Ahmad, 14; Rola, 12; Mohamad, 9; Ola, 8; Hala, 3; Rana, 2 and Abdullah, who was born in Canada in November.
“Those children were so grateful to Nova Scotians, I can tell you this,” said Ribahi.
They embraced their community to the fullest, said Ribahi. They loved most their local swimming pool, corn mazes, attending school and school bus rides.
“They loved talking to their neighbours, and when they first arrived to Nova Scotia we made sure each of them had a bike. They were not expensive bikes but they were their prized possessions and they loved to go on adventures together.”
The oldest child, Ahmad, couldn’t wait to get his first summer job.
A long road to a tragic end
Ribahi spearheaded the campaign to get the family to Nova Scotia. He and the HEART Society had decided to sponsor the Syrian family because they were in dire need, he recalls.
“We had received a list of potential refugee families from Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS). They were the biggest family, the family in most need.”
Now, he feels partly to blame for the tragedy and in a way wishes he was never introduced to the family.
“I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know what to make of it, a tragedy, a tragedy.”
But amid the darkness Ribahi is able to see points of light.
A day after the tragedy there’s been an outpouring of support for the family provincewide and beyond. A GoFundMe campaign launched by Ummah Mosque and Community Centre has quickly surpassed $300,000. On Tuesday night, more than 100 people gathered outside the charred remnants of the Quartz Drive house to mourn the children and to show support for their parents. More arrived at Halifax city hall Wednesday evening for a community gathering in support of the family.
“I think those seven children would be so proud of all this support and would have expected it because they found a home here and felt so much love and support in Nova Scotia.
“I’m not surprised either. That’s what Canada is. It’s Canadian humanity. Religion or race doesn’t define the Canada I know. I believe this 100 per cent.”
He says plans for a burial service remain on hold because the children’s bodies have yet to be released by the medical examiner.
He’s visited the hospital where the parents are recovering. Ebraheim remains in critical condition, while Kawthar is in good physical form but is in a state of shock. Part of the money raised through the online fundraiser will pay for the travel costs of bringing their families to Halifax to support them.
The family had only lived in Spryfield for a few months, having moved into Halifax from Elmsdale, to take advantage of language training and other immigrant services.
Ribahi had last seen the family on Sunday afternoon, just nine days before they were to move back to their old home in Elmsdale. Ebraheim put the finishing touches on the house.
Ebraheim also had jobs lined up for the beginning of March, says Ribahi. Back in Syria he was a licensed transport truck driver and also found work as a bus and taxi driver.
While Ribahi is certain the Barhos will continue to be flooded with support, he also knows the road ahead won’t be easy.
“I’ll miss the presence of those children so much, how they used to come to my house and turn it upside down but I always had a smile on my face when they left. They were so loving and so full of life.”