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.
Aymen Derbali, a 41-year-old Tunisian immigrant who survived last year’s shooting at a Quebec City mosque, takes physical rehabilitation with therapist Nathalie Roberge. ‘Now I'm living in a body that feels like it's not mine,’ says Mr. Derbali, now paralyzed from the shoulders down. ‘The last steps I took were in the mosque.'
It was Jan. 29 at the Grand Mosque of Quebec City when a gunman entered the sanctuary on Sainte-Foy Road and began firing after parishioners gathered for evening prayers.
Six men would die that night. Mr. Derbali barely survived, with seven bullet wounds in his body.
Aymen Derbali spent two months in a coma after the shooting at the Grand Mosque in Quebec. Now he fights to recover in a medical centre, adjusting to life in a wheelchair.
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 temporarily lives at the Quebec City rehabilitation centre and cannot return to his home because it is not accessible to wheelchairs.
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.
*Please donate to help fund this man an accessible home, chair, and devices that may allow him to travel and use computers effectively.*
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