'I'm not here by chance': One mosque shooting victim's journey of healing
Saïd Akjour says he is committed to staying in Quebec City, though the trauma lingers
One evening last autumn, for the first time in many months, Saïd Akjour strapped on shin guards, picked up a hockey stick and walked out onto a ball hockey court.
He stood bewildered as his teammates and friends banged their sticks in unison on the gym floor.
"I didn't know what it meant until they told me it meant 'respect,'" he says. "They treated me like a hero, like a hockey great."
Akjour says he was deeply moved and his eyes welled with tears.
Akjour emigrated from Morocco a decade ago. When he started playing ball hockey he had a lot to learn, like how to ignore his soccer reflexes and use a stick instead of his feet to move a ball around. But he felt joining in was his "100 per cent integration into Quebec," and the Wednesday night games became the highlight of his week.
A return to the game marked an important step in his recovery from that vicious act of violence that changed his life.
Akjour thought the traumatic memory of the mosque shooting would wane over time.
But a year later, he still has flashbacks, and the terror of the event that rocked Quebec City on that cold January night remains vivid.
Akjour was kneeling in the prayer hall, going over the night's Qur'an teaching, when the shooter entered.
Exposed, he sought refuge in an alcove, called a mirhab, just opposite the door, with men he calls his "brothers."
Huddled in that cramped space, unable to take full cover, he was shot in the shoulder. He froze as more bullets whizzed by, waiting, readying himself for a shot to the head.
The bullets only stopped when the shooter ran out of ammunition, he says.
As the shooting began, Akjour thought of his son, Zaky, and of his own father in North Africa. It was the thought of the injustice of a father losing a son that drove him to try to save himself that night.
Doctors removed a single bullet from his left shoulder, and Akjour began the painful journey to recovery.
Last May, four months after the shooting, the medical team treating him gave Akjour the all-clear to return to Morocco for a visit he knew would do him good.
There, his father kissed his scar.
"That gesture was more healing than any medication," Akjour said, adding that to this day his father is the only one to have done that.
Akjour was an elementary school teacher when he lived in Morocco, and he softens whenever he speaks about children.
He says seeing the lasting impact on his son has made him realize that the definition of "victim" is broader than just those who were injured, killed or witnessed the shooting.
Zaky is seven now, and Akjour says he and the boy's mother have fielded many questions in the past year. Zaky knows a bad man came into the mosque, that he was armed and that he killed people.
The boy is still scared to lose his father. Akjour says if he stops talking as he lies next to his son in bed, Zaky checks to makes sure he's still breathing.
"I see the panic, and right away I'll talk to him, because I can see he's checking to see if I'm still alive," Akjour said.
Months of physio
Akjour says any physical effort was excruciating after the shooting. Now, after months of physiotherapy and massage therapy, he has regained about 90 per cent of the use of his left arm, though he sometimes awakens in the middle of the night feeling as if his arm is detached from his body.
Akjour says he doesn't look at his scar on purpose, but he sees it every day, when he undresses or looks in the mirror.
"My scar is my tattoo — when I see it, I see all the martyrs that fell, all those who were injured," he said.
Back to work
Akjour's return to ball hockey coincided with his return to work as an orderly at a CHSLD, a public long-term care institution — "a major step in my overall healing," he said.
One of the residents at the CHSLD, Johanne Lapierre, calls Akjour her "ray of sunshine."
A devout Catholic whose room at the CHSLD is adorned with a photograph of the pope, crosses, angels and images of the Virgin Mary, Lapierre doesn't care that Akjour worships "a different Jesus."
She says she prayed for Akjour when she learned on the news that he was one of the shooting victims, hoping beyond hope he would come back to work quickly.
As Akjour sips a latte in a coffee shop near the CHSLD, he looks around and says today he feels comfortable here. But that's not always the case.
Sometimes when he's in a public place, he'll start imagining scenarios such as the police rushing in.
"I start looking around to see who else is there," he says. "If there are children, I'll plan what I would have to do to protect them.
"The thoughts can be really insistent, and sometimes I just have to leave."
Ambassador for his faith
He says events such as last summer's torching of a car that belonged to the president of the mosque where the shooting occurred opened fresh wounds in Quebec City's Muslim community.
"There are still people who are scared," Akjour said. "We aren't supposed to live in fear in a democratic country."
Last summer, at an event called MuslimFest in Mississauga, Ont., Akjour was astounded to be allowed to pray openly with others, in broad daylight.
"I thought: this can't be Canada," he said. "Or if it is, we are far from Quebec."
He considered relocating there.
But when he returned to Quebec City, he changed his mind.
He believes he has a role to play in helping Muslims and non-Muslims in his adopted city understand one another better.
"I'm not here by chance. I'm here to contribute, to answer questions, so we can all live together better," he says.
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.
With files from Radio-Canada's Alexandre Duval