Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the hundreds of people who gathered in Halifax’s main square Wednesday night in support of a Syrian refugee family that lost seven children in a house fire, as pressure mounted to bring other members of the grieving family to Nova Scotia.
The mourners gathered at Grand Parade in front of city hall and listened solemnly as the Barho children’s names and ages were read out followed by a moment of silence.
They were: Ahmad, 14; Rola, 12; Mohamad, 9; Ola, 8; Hala, 3; Rana, 2 and Abdullah, who was born in Canada in November.
Natalie Horne, of the organization that sponsored the Barho family, spoke through tears as she described the personalities of the children.
She noted they were all unique and individual.
“Ahmad, the oldest, was a jokester who had the best sense of humour, and like many 14-year-old boys, he loved girls,” said Horne, evoking laughter from the crowd.
“Rola, who was 12, was a little mother to all of the children and she excelled academically and wanted so much to do well in school.”
Mohamad was an excellent athlete, Ola loved to dance, Hala had a big personality, Rana was sweet and Abdullah was adored by his mother, said Horne, who works with Hants East Assisting Refugee Team Society.
Ali Duane, a member of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency, urged all Canadians to pressure the federal government to bring grieving mother Kawthar Barho’s family members to Nova Scotia.
“Speaking face to face with the mother, who is in a desperate situation, one of the things she has asked … is that her family be here as soon as possible. … We’re asking that her family be here as soon as possible,” said Duane, prompting spirited claps and cheers from the crowd.
Halifax MP Andy Fillmore said he was working with Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to bring Barho’s family to the province.
“The Barho family arrived in Halifax as refugees, but they became our neighbours. They became our friends,” Fillmore said in prepared remarks.
“Yet, the loss we feel tonight is so heavy because they were our neighbours. Syrian refugees, yes. But Nova Scotians, too.”
Trudeau didn’t speak at the vigil, but stood among the crowd with his hands cupped together, sometimes with his head down, before heading to a previously planned party event.
He told supporters at that event that he came straight in from the airport to attend the vigil for the family.
“It’s unimaginable to think what the family is going through, and the loss that is facing the community,” he said.
The prime minister said he was inspired “to see so many people come out to share their love, to share their support for this family that most of them didn’t know and to say, ‘We’re there for you.’”
“We’re there for you to lean on us. We’re there because you are a family of Syrian refugees, but you are also a family of Nova Scotians and Canadians.”
At the vigil, fire Chief Ken Stuebing recited lines from the so-called firefighter’s prayer: “Give me the strength to save a life, whatever be its age. Help me embrace a little child before it’s too late.”
“For all of us, this prayer will now have a new meaning,” said Stuebing, as another member of the fire department translated his remarks into Arabic.
“I struggle to find fitting words, torn between intense sorrow in my heart and with the pride that we all have for the valiant efforts of our women and men who struggled to fight those flames and avoid this fate.”
Manal Elmeligy, a 39-year-old mother of four, said she came to the vigil to show respect and support. She said she did not know Kawthar Barho, but went to visit her in the hospital because she is also Muslim and wanted her to know she was not alone.
“She just needs her mother. She is alone. She lost all her kids. She has no family here. She was calling her mom in the morning, and she’s the only one who can comfort her,” said Elmeligy, bundled up in the bitter cold.
“The Canadian government needs to help bring her mom. There’s nothing we can do to help. We are all strangers to her.”
The Barho family came to Nova Scotia in 2017 as sponsored refugees. The seven children died early Tuesday in a fire that swept through their suburban home.
Imam Abdallah Yousri of the Ummah Mosque and Community Centre in Halifax said Wednesday that the father, Ebraheim Barho, remains in critical condition in hospital.
As for his wife, Kawthar Barho, Yousri said she remains so distraught that she says little, aside from repeating the name of her youngest child Abdullah.
Yousri said plans for a burial service remain on hold because the children’s bodies have yet to be released by the medical examiner.
Halifax is hurting from an immeasurable loss of life today following a house fire in Spryfield.— Andy Fillmore, MP (@AndyFillmoreHFX) February 19, 2019
They arrived as refugees – but they became our neighbours. Our thoughts are with the survivors and their loved ones.
My statement from the House of Commons: pic.twitter.com/p4nYBbwf8e
A fundraising campaign launched to help the parents quickly surpassed its initial $300,000 goal.
A GoFundMe page had collected more than $352,000 as of Wednesday evening, with its stated goal raised to $1 million. The effort is organized by family friends and the Imam Council of Halifax.
The city’s official community gathering came 24 hours after a more spontaneous gathering Tuesday night outside the charred remnants of the family’s Quartz Drive house.
Neighbours and others carried flowers and wept openly in the frigid darkness, looking for solace in the company of neighbours and listening to a Christian pastor attempt to gather community strength for the Syrian refugees beginning to make a new life in Canada.
The fire struck not long after midnight on Tuesday morning. Neighbours said they were awoken by a woman’s screams and looked out to see flames that quickly engulfed the entire upper floor.
The family had only lived in the Spryfield for a few months, having moved into Halifax from Elmsdale, N.S., to take advantage of language training and other immigrant services.
They had fled war-torn Syria and, with the help of a private sponsorship group, came to Canada in September 2017. A spokesperson for the group said the family had planned to return to Elmsdale next month.
— With files from Michael Tutton.
Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press