At each casket, the parents touched their child and prayed.
Five times they stopped. Five times they prayed.
Not until the last casket, the one holding their oldest daughter, did the mother break down. Clutching her husband’s hand, she leaned into him, quietly whimpering and crying as they walked back to their seats.
More than 400 people gathered Saturday in the main sanctuary of Mount Zion Baptist Church of Greensboro to say goodbye to five refugee children who died after a May 12 apartment fire.
Roy Hope, 8, the eldest of the five, was a Girl Scout who stood up for classmates in need at Rankin Elementary.
Lisa Josiane, 7, also a Girl Scout, attended first grade at Rankin.
Christopher Danny, 5, wanted to be a truck driver when he grew up, and 3-year-old Joshua John always followed his two sisters around.
Trump Emmanuel Kamali was just months from being born when their family — originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — fled Uganda for a better life in the United States two years ago.
He was 18 months old.
“When they die, those who are too young and do not comprehend, I believe Jesus welcomes them into his arms when they get to heaven,” said the Rev. John Malek, the pastor at Dillon Baptist Church in Jamestown.
Fire officials have said food left on the stove led to the fire early May 12 inside the apartment in a complex in the 3100 block of Summit Avenue at the corner of Cone Boulevard. The apartment didn’t have working smoke alarms or carbon monoxide detectors.
Mugabo Emmanuel, who was home with his children, was injured trying to get the two daughters and three sons out of the burning apartment.
Lisa Josiane and Joshua John died May 12 at Moses Cone Hospital, according to a joint obituary for the sibilings. The other three children died at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem a day later — Mother’s Day.
The conversation surrounding the fatal fire prompted residents in the mostly immigrant community of homes to ask the city to conduct door-to-door inspections on the 42-unit property.
Before the fire, many did not know some of their rights as renters. Inspectors found hundreds of violations, ranging from missing smoke detectors to rodents to holes in the wall.
As inspectors went over the complex last week, a family prepared to say goodbye.
Saturday’s service, more of a celebration of life than funeral, included sermons and readings in English and Swahili and traditional a cappella singing.
At the front of the church sat five white, child-sized caskets draped in a yellow and white floral arrangements. Inside each rested a child accompanied by a small stuffed bear. The boys wore black suits, white shirts and multicolored ties and the girls, white dresses with rhinestones.
Hundreds of family and friends marched into the church led by the parents of the children, Mugabo Emmanuel and Faraha Lucy. Almost all of the women in the family wore colorful, vibrant dresses from Africa. The weeping of family members viewing the bodies was occasionally drowned out by the sounds of small, crying children in the church.
Some family members reached into the caskets to hug and kiss each child while others hurriedly walked by while shedding tears, almost refusing to look.
Rev. Malek, who said his church hosts the Congolese community in the area, told mourners that death marks the end of life on Earth. Yet one day, he said, everyone will be together again at the feet of Jesus.
“Death becomes a joyous anticipation for those who believe in Christ,” he said.
The mourners included community members who didn’t even know the family.
PB Tor heard about the deaths shortly after they happened. The Greensboro resident, by way of the South Sudan, said he drove by the apartment after it happened to pay his respects.
He said he understood what they are going through after losing his father two months ago. He wanted to be at the funeral to let them know they are not alone and that Africans from all countries are with them.
He said it’s heart breaking to know five children died in a fire.
“It hurt me more that they were kids,” he said. “It makes me question life.”
Cardo Grant would sometimes play soccer with children at that apartment complex, where he would stop on trips to a store on Summit Avenue to shop for ingredients to prepare food from his native Jamaica.
Grant said he and his wife talked about how devastating it had to be to lose five children. Their son, Cardo Jr., will graduate from Page High on June 4.
Grant said he jokes with his son that he is his message to the future.
Grant wonders what message to the future the grieving parents have.
“I am so hurt by this,” he said. “How do you grieve five bodies separately at the same time?”
City and Guilford County Schools leaders also paid their respects, including Mayor Nancy Vaughan, council members Sharon Hightower and Marikay Abuzuaiter and schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Abuzuaiter said. “The family is going to need a lot of help and love.”
After the service, Hightower struggled to find words for such a loss.
“They will never get over this,” she said. “Each day may get better than the day before, but it won’t be the same.”
The siblings were buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in plots that were donated by the city.