After one year of grieving, Quebec City mosque undaunted in quest to build tolerance

Widows and relatives of the six men killed in the Quebec City mosque attack offered their thanks Saturday to those who helped them cope since the tragedy.

Widows of the deadly attack speak out for first time since the 2017 tragedy

Idiatou Barry struggled through tears as she talked about her late husband, Mamadou Tanou Barry, killed in last year's attack on a Quebec City mosque. (Julia Page/CBC)

Sitting in the room where their year of sorrow began, widows and relatives of the six men killed in the Quebec City mosque attack offered their thanks to those who helped them cope since the tragedy.

Their message came as the Islamic Cultural Centre opened its doors to the public on Saturday evening, one of several events taking place over the weekend to mark the first anniversary of the Jan. 29th shooting. An interfaith ceremony will be held Sunday at the Pavillon de la Jeunesse, starting at 7 p.m. 

Saturday's open house allowed people to view thousands of messages, drawings and cards the mosque has received over the year.

Those who suffered most from the attack said this show of solidarity, which poured in from across Canada, helped them cope with the deaths of their loved ones.
Safia Hamoudi, centre, speaks of the tragedy that took her husband, Khaled Belkacemi. Hamoudi's son Amir Belkacemi, back left, and her daughter Megda Belkacemi, back centre, stand in support. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"You can't know how much the show of support, solidarity and affection helped us get through this difficult time," said Idiatou Barry, wife of Mamadou Tanou Barry.

Aboubaker Thabti's wife, Khadija, said the pain of seeing her two young children grow up without their father was lessened by the tremendous outpouring of sympathy.

"Today I'm thinking about them and their future," said Khadija Thabti. She added: "That's why I'm calling for solidarity in supporting us, and to accompany us in our new reality."

Reliving the attack

Most of the traces of the shooting have been removed from the mosque, which is located in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy.

The carpet, once soaked with blood, has been cleaned and pockets of it replaced. The walls have been given a new paint job.

But a bullet hole in a bathroom door, where someone hid during the shooting, was left unrepaired — a reminder of the tragedy.

For those who were present at the mosque that night there is, of course, little danger of ever forgetting what happened. 

Among those who attended Saturday's event was Aymen Derbali, who was shot seven times while trying to distract the shooter. He is now a quadriplegic.
Aymen Derbali, who is quadriplegic after being shot seven times, says he will work to encourage dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. (Julia Page/CBC)

​"We have to multiply our efforts to be able to dissipate … all hate," he said. "We will never forget our brothers who fell here."

Derbali said he is convinced the darkness that transpired that night does not represent the Quebec he knows.

"It's true that it's a Quebecer who spread terror at the mosque, but it's also true that it's Quebecers — doctors, medical staff — who did everything they could to save me. And for that I thank them."

Those who saw their friends gunned down — but escaped physical injury themselves — also shared their gratitude for the psychological support they have been able to access.

Aymen Derbali sits at the front of the prayer room where he was shot almost a year ago. Mosque leaders pointed out that the prayer held during the open door event reflects the one that had just ended when the attack occurred, just after 7:30 p.m. (Julia Page/CBC)
Mohamed El Hafid said he was among the "37 people who were wounded in their souls, in their spirits." El Hafid said their stories have yet to be told.

"They were traumatized, to a different extent. They lived this tragedy, but life must go on," he said.

Messages of peace outweigh hate

Colourful banners, paintings and books of condolences from cities across Canada decorated the men's prayer room on Saturday.

Manon Bussières was among dozens of people who attended the open house. She took part in the spontaneous vigil that was held the night after the shooting, and has been looking for an opportunity to visit the mosque ever since. 

"We can see people here are like a big family and we really felt welcome when we arrived," Bussières said. 

One of the volunteers who sifted through the messages said the mosque was only able to show a fraction of the total number received. 

"This is something that is very meaningful," said Fatou Kiné Cissé.

"In the ocean of expressions of right-wing extremism, and all those negative messages that have been expressed, we need to dig through the goodness."

Kiné Cissé said the mosque wanted to reflect this to the population.
Louise Filliatrault (left) and Manon Bussières read the messages of support sent to the Islamic Cultural Centre, which opened its doors to the public to commemorate the shooting on Jan. 29, 2017. (Julia Page/CBC)

"That majority is more important than the small minority that is nurturing hatred and division," she added. 

Jamel El Hachimi said when he arrived in Quebec City in September to pursue post-doctoral studies at Laval University, he was concerned by the public displays of Islamophobia.

He said he hopes the messages of peace and inclusion that he read at the mosque on Saturday will circulate throughout Quebec society, and will be omnipresent once his wife and daughter join him from Morocco.
Jamel El Hachimi says despite having concerns when he arrived in Quebec City in September, he was comforted by the openness he saw in the letters sent to the mosque. (Julia Page/CBC)

"We keep hope that the future will be better. Everyone has their strengths. People love life, and peace as well. Peace is in everybody's best interests."

Sunday's spiritual gathering will be held at Expo-Cité. Leaders from First Nations, from Jewish, Catholic, Anglican and Muslim faiths will share the stage.

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 Claire Loewen and Jonathan Montpetit