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Shot 7 times in Quebec City mosque attack, survivor fights to reclaim his life

Aymen Derbali was in a coma for two months after the shooting. Now, only able to move his head, arms and hands, he's learning how to navigate a world that, for him and his family, has changed forever.

Aymen Derbali, left paralyzed by the shooting, is determined to rebuild his life with his young family

Aymen Derbali, 41, is relearning how to navigate the world after the mosque shooting. He was riddled with bullets, including one to the base of his neck. Left paralyzed, he can only move his head, arms and hands. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

It's a Saturday afternoon, and Aymen Derbali is watching from the bleachers with other parents as his son plays soccer on the pitch below.

The boys' voices echo in the indoor sportsplex as they run back and forth, the green team chasing the red team, the red team chasing the green.

Nine-year-old Ayoub Derbali gets a pass in front of the net and uses a bit of fancy footwork to get by his defender and score a goal.

His father beams, lifting his hands to clap. But he can't.

Derbali, 41, was shot seven times on Jan. 29, 2017, the night of the attack on the mosque in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy. He took a bullet in the chin, in his spinal cord, his feet. One just missed his heart.

Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder in the shooting. His trial is set to begin in Quebec City on March 26.

Derbali met the gunman's eyes, deliberately trying to make himself a target, so that others who had been praying nearby would escape the bullets.

He is now a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down. He can only move his head, arms and hands. He gets around in an electric wheelchair.
Derbali and his wife Nedra Zahouani watch their son Ayoub, 9, play soccer. It's the first game Derbali has been able to attend since the shooting. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Ayoub's soccer game was the first Derbali had been able to attend in months. When his son realized he was there, he excitedly informed his coach that his dad was back.

When Ayoub visited his father for the first time after Derbali woke up from his coma, soccer was the only thing Ayoub wanted to talk about. It is one of the ties that bind father and son.

Derbali keeps telling Ayoub that while they can't practise together as they used to, they may be able to again someday.He asks his son to keep the faith, even if he knows it's medically impossible. 

"I tell him, 'Ayoub, we must always hold on to hope. If we don't have some things, we have others. We lose things, but we can gain them too.'"

Tears well up in his eyes, and Derbali struggles to wipe them away.

His wife, Nedra Zahouani, steps in with a tissue.

The importance of home

Zahouani has been Derbali's rock. 

At the hospital, after the shooting, doctors didn't think Derbali would make it, and they gave his wife the option of pulling the plug on him. 

She was told if he survived, the life he'd have wouldn't be the kind of life he'd want. His body was so riddled with bullets, doctors couldn't do an MRI, and they didn't think he would ever be able to move his arms.

But she refused to give up on him.

Derbali was kept in a medically induced coma for two months, and Zahaoui stayed by his side 12 hours a day.

He now lives at a rehabilitation centre not far from the mosque where he was gunned down.

Derbali's 22-month-old daughter Maryem embraces her dad during a weekend visit. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

His main goal is to return home and live with his wife, his sons Ayoub and Youssouf, five, and his 22-month-old daughter Maryem.

He and his family have received about $150,000 from the Quebec government and through donations, but the government's victims compensation fund won't cover the cost of buying a home and adapting it to his needs.

To that end, a crowdfunding campaign in his honour has raised more than $280,000 so far. 

Even when Derbali is able to return home, the family will face other challenges.

Youssouf is severely autistic and requires round-the-clock care. 

Before the shooting, he and Zahouani would share that responsibility, taking turns stepping in if Youssouf tried to hurt himself. That's no longer the case.

"I feel bitter; I feel powerless when I can't move, when I can't get myself out of my chair," Derbali says. "I have to call my wife when he's right beside me, because I can't stop him."

The local social services agency has provided the family with some home-care support for Youssouf since the shooting, but still, Zahouani is exhausted trying to juggle everything, he said.

Aymen Derbali is determined to rebuild his life with his young family. 3:02

Regaining his strength

It's lunchtime at the rehabilitation centre.

A staff member straps a fork to Derbali's left hand so he can eat, then cuts the food up, squeezes some lemon on the fish and arranges the dishes on the tray.

His hand shakes as he lifts each forkful of food to his mouth.

Still, it's an improvement. When he arrived at the centre last July, he couldn't move his hands or fingers at all. 

Now he can pilot his electric wheelchair, hoping eventually to use a manual one. He can use his cellphone, and he can browse the web, using a wand to push the keys on the computer keyboard.​ 

His days are mapped out for him — meetings with a social worker, a psychologist, and physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions. It's those last two he finds the most important.

"They help me regain a bit of autonomy," he said.

After lunch, Derbali is off to see his physiotherapist, Nathalie Roberge. During their near-daily sessions, they work on his balance, flexibility and muscle tone.
Derbali sees his physiotherapist Nathalie Roberge almost daily for 90 minutes. They work on his flexibility and muscle strength. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

He is still in excruciating pain, but he says he's recovered a lot of his physical strength.

When it comes to his psychological strength, it's all in the thoughts, he explained.

"When I think positively, I put things into perspective. It's true those thoughts take me back to images of the past, when I was playing soccer with my son, and it's true I can't do that and it hurts, but at the same times I say, 'OK, I can see my kids, they can see me, I'm still here, alive.'"

Spiritual rehabilitation

Every Friday, Derbali goes to the place he almost died, the place where his life was forever changed, to pray. It was one of the first things he asked to do — be allowed to return to the mosque.

His physiotherapist has found that he is more relaxed after prayers. Praying helps him cope with the pain.

In spite of everything that happened there, Derbali returns to the mosque to pray every Friday. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Despite the horror of what he lived through, the mosque remains an important place for him. He wants his new home to be close by.

"There are people who would want to run from a place where they had an accident or where there was an attack. They want to flee, they want to forget it," he says.

"That's not the case for me at all. I want to return often, pray at the mosque as usual, see my friends, so life goes on."

His faith, he says, was never shaken.

The future

Derbali will be living at the rehab centre until June. After that, he's hoping his new house will be ready.

"I could help my kids with their homework. In the future, I could help them learn to drive," he said.

He has two MBAs and plans to eventually start working again as an IT specialist.

Derbali, who is originally from Tunisia, has been living in Quebec since 2001. He has no intention of leaving.

Doctors here helped give him a second chance at life, and he will build on the life he's made for himself and his family here.
Maryem's face was the last vision that flashed through his mind before Derbali passed out after being shot seven times. Now, he hopes to teach her to drive one day. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Many believe Derbali saved lives on Jan. 29, 2017, but he eschews the word hero.

When he replays the sights and sounds of the shooting rampage in his mind, he always thinks he could have done more. 

"I would be ashamed for the rest of my life if I had thought about fleeing and leaving the others," he said.

With difficulty, he lifts his hand to his face, and he weeps.


This story is part of CBC's in-depth look at the aftermath of the shooting at the mosque in Quebec City one year ago. CBC will also have special coverage of the commemorative events on Monday, Jan. 29, including live radio, TV and online broadcasts.

About the Author

Kamila Hinkson

Journalist

Kamila Hinkson is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter at @kamilahinkson.

With files from Radio-Canada's Alexandre Duval