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Canada Widow of Quebec mosque massacre victim says tragedy ‘destroyed everything’

Safia Hamoudi, centre, speaks of the shooting that took her husband, Khaled Belkacemi, one year ago, on Jan. 29, 2017.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Their names are Safia, Idiatou and Khadija, and their bond can be seen through their broken voices and pain-tinged faces. This weekend, after a year in the shadows, the widows of three men gunned down at a Quebec City mosque spoke at the site of their husbands' deaths to share their sorrow and voice gratitude to the public for its support.

The women gathered at the Grand Mosque of Quebec City as part of the commemorations to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack that killed six men and rattled a country.

Three of their six widows agreed to speak in their own name, while the others relied on relatives to deliver their messages. Together, the women's words, downcast gazes and bent shoulders distilled the wounds and lingering shock of the assault on its extended victims.

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"I've found it extremely difficult to express myself all year about what happened," said Safia Hamoudi, who lost her husband, Khaled Belkacemi, both of them professors at Laval University. "It's been a period of mourning, and it's not over."

Canadians know the six men as victims. Their spouses knew them as husbands and fathers who picked up groceries on their way home, cracked jokes at the dinner table and held their small children in their arms before bed.

The men who died Jan. 29 were aged 39 to 60. They left 17 children behind.

"He's left a big void for us," said Khadija Thabti, who has been unable to get rid of the belongings of her husband, Boubaker Thabti. His shoes, books and clothing are still in the house. The couple's 2-year-old daughter, Meriem, who stood at her mother's knee at the mosque on Saturday, still asks when her father is coming home.

"We came to Quebec with dreams, and for our children's future," Ms. Thabti, a native of Tunisia, said in an interview. "This tragedy destroyed everything."

The event at the mosque also marked an outreach effort by the Islamic Cultural Centre in the provincial capital, which held an open house to try to throw up bridges with non-Muslims and improve what is at times a fraught relationship with Quebeckers in a province that is wrestling with the place of religion in the public sphere.

The walls of the mosque were lined with hundreds of cards and letters that poured in after the attack from across the country and the rest of North America. They represent just a fraction of the messages the mosque received.

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"We thank all those near and far who supported us after the tragic and painful event that happened right here a year ago," said Idiatou Barry, the widow of Mamadou Tanou Barry. "You have no idea how the gestures of support, solidarity, affection and the testimonials allowed us to get through the difficult moments."

The event at the mosque also shed light on stories of ordinary bravery that have gone largely unnoticed.

Thouria Mafa recounted that her husband, Hakim Chambaz, likely saved the life of a young girl who was at the mosque the night of the shooting. The girl's father was wounded in the attack and the terrified girl, aged around 8, panicked. "She was running around yelling "'Daddy, daddy, daddy,' " Ms. Mafa said.

Mr. Chambaz grabbed the girl in his arms and pressed her up against a pillar in the mosque. He covered her body with his own, shielding her from the gunman. "My husband is a hero," Ms. Mafa said in an interview.

Mr. Chambaz has not recovered. He still wakes with nightmares. "He wants to forget," his wife said.

Through the grief, the gathering also heard messages of hope. Aymen Derbali, who was shot seven times at the mosque and is now a paraplegic, sees in the deluge of support a sign that people are fundamentally good, and "evil is the exception."

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"It's true that it's a Quebecker who spread terror at the mosque," Mr. Derbali said from his wheelchair, "but it's also true that it's Quebeckers – doctors, medical staff – who made such great efforts to save us."

A LaunchGood fundraising drive, launched after The Globe and Mail wrote about Mr. Derbali's difficulties, has collected nearly $324,000 toward helping with the purchase of a home for him and his family. Mr. Derbali says he expects to be released from his Quebec City rehabilitation centre in about two months. His MP, Liberal Joël Lightbound, visited Mr. Derbali this month and is looking after his case, co-ordinating with other levels of government.

"I see my injury and handicap every day, but I maintain hope and see the positive side – the solidarity" Mr. Derbali said. "It gives me strength."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with provincial and municipal leaders, is scheduled to take part in a commemorative ceremony next to the mosque on Monday to mark the anniversary of the day of the attack.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined hundreds of others at a vigil for those killed in Sunday's shooting at a Quebec City mosque.
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