When shooting erupted at the Grand Mosque of Quebec City, Aymen Derbali’s instinct took over. While panicked worshipers fled looking for cover, Derbali drew the shooter’s attention and started moving towards him. The gunman fired a bullet into his right knee and a second bullet into his chin.
His plan was simple: “I reasoned that if he fired at me, he would not fire on others.”
The gunman fired seven shots at Derbali before refilling his semi-automatic rifle. One bullet sliced through an artery near his heart and he was loosing blood fast. While he was losing consciousness, he noticed that his plan had worked; it delayed the gunman and allowed many worshipers to flee the mosque, according to a report in British newspaper The Guardian.
Two months later, Derbali woke up from his coma in a hospital in Quebec City, and only then learned that the horrific attack left six men dead, all of whom were fathers. He was one of 19 other people injured in the attack.
He also learned that he could never walk; the attack paralyzed the lower part of his body.
Doctors managed to remove most of the bullets from his body, but fragments from two of them remain in his spinal cord.
Shortly after the attack a year ago, police arrested a university student with a record of attacking women activists’s online and celebrating the policies of Marine Le Pen in France and Donald Trump in America. Alexander Bessonit was convicted of six counts of murder and six other charges of attempted murder.
The terrible attack shook a city that has long been classified as one of the safest cities in the country. It was the most deadly attack on a place of worship, and left the Muslim community shaken.
In the ensuing months, the initial influx of support weakened after a series of incidents that further weakened the shattered Muslim community. Criticism of the designation of a Muslim graveyard escalated to the point where the car of the mosque director was burned on his private driveway. The mosque has been targeted with a constant stream of hate messages. Hate crimes targetting the Muslim population increased from 21 in 2016 to 42 in 2017.
Local politicians have been accused of sowing division by trying to impose the first ban on the veil in North America.
Officials later rejected a proposal to mark the first anniversary of the attack as a Remembrance Day and a movement against Islamophobia. “We think it is better to collectively affirm our commitment to work against the phenomenon of racism and discrimination, rather than to refer to one of its manifestations,” said Philippe Quillard, prime minister of Quebec’s provincial government.
In the rehabilitation center that became his new home, Derbali focused on recovery. He managed to regain some movement in his arms and fingers, and recently began to move using a wheelchair.
“I feel lucky to be alive,” he said in an interview. Every time he visits the mosque, there are things to remember about the attack: bullet holes are still visible on the walls, while the shoes of the six men killed in the attack are still on the shelves outside the prayer hall.
At the time of the attack, Derbali was an information technology specialist and was the only breadwinner.
Derbali still does not know when he will recover enough to return to his home, where his wife and three young children live. What hinders his leaving the hospital is the fact that his family lives in an apartment on the fourth floor, and his doctors said they can not allow him to live in a place taht does not have a wheelchair entrance.
Until now, Derbali can visit his home, but only for a few hours. “I spend all my time in the living room, and I can not get into the bathroom or the bedroom,” he says.
After community members expressed concern about Derbali’s situation, a non-profit organization in the Canadian capital Toronto launched a funding campaign to provide the family with a suitable home.
“He is a hero, and part of the motive behind the campaign is not only to help him find a suitable home, but also to help him find a home that makes him closely linked to the society he literally sacrificed his legs for,” said Amira Gouabi of DawaNet.
The campaign brought together donations from Canada and other countries totaling $319,000 CAD towards the campaign’s target of $400,000 CAD.
It is hoped that the full amount will be collected by 29 January 2018 - the first year anniversary of the attack. “So this family can look to the future instead of restoring the shock of what happened,” added Amira.
Derbali said the flow of support was heartwarming. “Solidarity has given me more hope, and this is the most important thing for my family and me, to be able to return home and continue a normal life with my family.”
“I have no bad feelings or bitterness. This hasn’t changed my vision of this country. I’m proud to be Canadian. What happened could have happened anywhere in the world.” said Derbali, who moved from Tunisia to Canada in 2001 to study at the University of Laval.
But, referring to the medical care he has received and many people across the country who have helped his family, he adds: “It made me more proud to be Canadian.”
When asked the question - knowing the consequences - whether he would do things differently on the night of the attack, his response was quick.
“I do not regret what I did at all, and I may do the same thing in any other situation, whether in a shop, a school, or on the street,” he said.
He said the losses would have been much worse if he did not follow his innate instincts: “Thanks to this choice, many managed to escape.”
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