At the Quebec mosque shooting, this man risked his life to save others. Who will save him now?
Six men died in January's attack on a Quebec City mosque, but Aymen Derbali barely survived after facing the gunman directly to draw fire away from others. He spent two months in a coma and will never walk again. Now, as he struggles to recover, his appeals for help starting a new life have gone unanswered. Ingrid Peritz tells his story
Editor's note: In the months after this article was published, more than $400,000 was raised for Aymen Derbali, who was paralyzed in the Quebec City mosque attack
Aymen Derbali lay on the carpeted floor, his life seeping out of his body. The screams of his friends filled his ears. The bullet that sliced through an artery near his heart was draining his blood.
“Aymen, stay with us,” voices were shouting. “Stay with us, Aymen, open your eyes!”
Mr. Derbali could not be sure whether he was alive or dead. He heard someone call for ambulances. Someone else told him to urgently recite the Muslim statement of faith before dying. Then, in his final seconds of consciousness, he saw a flash of blue, a blue that he recognized as a police uniform. “No one move,” the voice in the uniform yelled. “Hands in the air!”
Mr. Derbali could not move. It was after 8 p.m. last Jan. 29 at the Grand Mosque of Quebec City. Minutes earlier, a gunman had calmly entered the sanctuary on Sainte-Foy Road and began firing after parishioners gathered for evening prayers.
Six men would die that night. A 27-year-old former army cadet would be arrested and charged with murder. Mr. Derbali would know nothing about it. He was rushed through the frigid winter night toward the Hôpital de l’Enfant-Jésus with seven bullet wounds in his body.
He fell into a coma. When he woke up, two months had passed.
And that is when Mr. Derbali’s new life as a mass-shooting survivor began.
“I never knew what it felt like to get shot,” the 41-year-old says from his wheelchair. “Now I’m living in a body that feels like it’s not mine. The last steps I took were in the mosque.”
The toll from the attack at the Grand Mosque of Quebec nearly one year ago is sometimes measured in the lives lost, the families left fatherless, the loss of innocence in a nation that prides itself on tolerance and non-violence. But it is also measured by those who survived the attack yet remain permanently damaged by it.
Before Jan. 29, Mr. Derbali was a hard-working father of three who took his children to swimming lessons, played midfield in his Saturday soccer games, and drove friends and neighbours to appointments in his Toyota Corolla. He came to Canada from Tunisia in 2001 to study at Laval University, earned two MBAs, and became a specialist working in IT. Along the way, he studied to improve his English. He learned Spanish, too, when he signed on as an aid worker in Bolivia for Oxfam-Québec.
Now, the fragments of two bullets remain lodged in Mr. Derbali’s spinal cord. He will never walk again.
Mr. Derbali rolls into a physiotherapy room at the Quebec City rehabilitation centre where he now lives, his face lit with a look of single-minded focus. He tries to lift the 187-pound deadweight of his body onto an exercise mat; his arms tremble and he grimaces in pain. Just as deep is the trauma in his mind. After he woke from his coma, he hallucinated that he was in a war zone. He imagined that a young man who happened to be in his room was the mosque shooter, until someone reassured him the suspected assailant, Alexandre Bissonnette, was in jail.
He kept replaying the shooting in his head, imagining over and over what he might have done differently to save lives.
“I blamed myself all the time, not to have done this or that. Maybe I could have tried to get the shooter from behind,” he said at the Institut de réadaptation en déficience physique de Québec.
Yet Mr. Derbali did act that night. As panicked parishioners fled for cover, he says he deliberately drew the gunman’s attention to himself. The two locked eyes. “I saw determination, determination to kill us all.” Mr. Derbali says he crouched as if he was going to pounce on the attacker. At that moment, he says, the gunman shot him in the right knee and fired a second bullet into his chin.
At least if he takes a few bullets, he remembers thinking, the shooter will either empty his gun or police will arrive before there are other victims.
“I tried not to panic or flee,” he says. “I tried to concentrate so that he wouldn’t fire on others. I would rather have been paralyzed for life than to have fled and been left unscathed, without having done something to help people.”
His wife, Nedra Zahaoui, knows how close she came to losing her husband. A doctor in intensive care after the shooting told her his blood pressure had practically fallen to zero. He was put in an artificial coma.
“He’s a hero to me and to my children,” she says. “It’s a miracle he’s still with us.”
The couple has given up much, but not their faith in the country that welcomed them. Both say it would be wrong to judge an entire society for the act of a single man.
“I have no bad feelings or bitterness,” Mr. Derbali says. “This hasn’t changed my vision of this country. I’m proud to be Canadian. What happened could have happened anywhere in the world.”
Still, there are times when he has reason to wonder if the world has moved on. His act of bravery has gone uncelebrated. He has not received a single note or visit from a politician since arriving at the rehabilitation centre in July. “I’m surprised,” he admits, choosing his words carefully.
One day – no one is able yet to say when – he will leave the medical centre. He cannot return to the family’s fourth-floor apartment because it is not adapted for his wheelchair. The family of five will have to find a new home. Where will they go? How will they pay for it? Calls for help to city and provincial officials have gone nowhere, Mr. Derbali says.
“My destiny was to survive that night. My time hadn’t come,” Mr. Derbali says. As for his future, he says, “I think it’s behind me.”
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