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Canada Canadians give generously to help man paralyzed in Quebec City mosque shooting

Aymen Derbali smiles with his wife Nedra Zahaoui in a Quebec City rehab centre.

Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

The donations have been small and large, in sums of $5 and $25,000, coming from Corner Brook to Vancouver Island and points in between. In just over a week, Canadians have raised more than $124,000 to help a victim of the Quebec City mosque shooting who was paralyzed in the deadly attack while trying to shield others.

Aymen Derbali had received no response from political leaders when friends, acting on his behalf, reached out to try to get support. An e-mail and phone call to Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard's office went unanswered.

Ordinary Canadians, however, reacted with generosity after The Globe and Mail profiled Mr. Derbali and his struggle to recover from his life-changing wounds.

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"I was always proud to be Canadian and I'm even more proud now," Mr. Derbali said from the Quebec City rehabilitation centre where he is learning to adapt to his disability. "I know that people are thinking of me."

Mr. Derbali was critically wounded last Jan. 29 after a gunman opened fire inside the Grand Mosque of Quebec City, killing six worshippers. Mr. Derbali, the father of three, had tried to divert the shooter's attention to himself to protect others. He was shot seven times.

In the days after the attack, as he lay close to death in Quebec City's Enfant-Jésus hospital, many believed Mr. Derbali was to become victim No. 7.

He spent two months in a coma. When he emerged, he had lost the ability to walk. The fragments of two bullets remained lodged in his spinal cord.

Response to the story of Mr. Derbali's condition was swift. A LaunchGood page was set up for Mr. Derbali the day after The Globe's article appeared, and it has already collected more than a quarter of its $400,000 fundraising goal.

The campaign ends Jan. 28, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the mosque attack.

While most of the donors come from Canada, Mr. Derbali's story has reverberated around the world, with donations flowing from the United States and Europe.

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"This is a really important moment to recognize Aymen's sacrifice and how he confronted hatred with courage, when anyone would typically have run away," said Amira Elghawaby, a spokeswoman for DawaNet, the Toronto-based Muslim community group behind the fundraising initiative.

She said eyewitness testimony from inside the mosque confirms that Mr. Derbali deliberately stood in the way of danger.

"He really wanted to put himself in the line of fire to save others," she said.

Ms. Elghawaby said Muslim community members had been worried about Mr. Derbali's situation for months, unable to obtain commitments from public figures or secure financial help for him. Mr. Derbali was his family's breadwinner; he and his wife, Nedra Zahaoui, live with their three children in a fourth-floor apartment that is not adapted to his disability. They need a home that can accommodate his wheelchair.

"Everyone had been talking about Aymen and feeling anxiety over what his family was going to do," Ms. Elghawaby said. "What he and his family have gone through is quite traumatic. People really wanted to help him, recognizing his heroism."

Dozens of people have contacted The Globe seeking ways to come to Mr. Derbali's aid. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City has agreed to hold a benefit concert on March 11 to raise funds for Mr. Derbali; the idea came from Béatrice Cadrin, a musician who was the Anglican cathedral's former choirmaster.

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"He literally sacrificed himself for the people around him," said Ms. Cadrin, who grew up in Quebec City. She said the shooting at the mosque was a shock for the city. "We have a moral responsibility toward the victims as a society."

"I really don't know if this concert will be enough to bring about a significant change in Mr. Derbali's circumstances," Ms. Cadrin added, "but I feel the need to try."

Mr. Derbali insisted he has not allowed the attack to colour his perception of Canadians or of his adopted homeland. He has been moved by the gestures of help he's received.

"I've always believed that most Canadians believe in solidarity and want to live in harmony," he said. "I've never once regretted the day I asked for Canadian citizenship."

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