Quebec City's close-knit Muslim community reeling as mosque victims remembered

It seems as if every Muslim in Quebec City knew at least one of the six men killed in Sunday's mosque attack, an assault that has devastated families and shaken a community to its core.

'Each of these six deaths is like a death in the family'

Quebec mosque attack victims, clockwise from left: Azzeddine Soufiane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Ibrahima Barry and Abdelkrim Hassane (CBC)

It seems as if every Muslim in Quebec City knew at least one of the six men killed in Sunday's mosque attack, an assault that has devastated families and shaken a community to its core.

It's a close-knit group with just 6,700 followers of Islam living in the region. There isn't much of an ethnic enclave to speak of although many reside in the northern half of the Ste-Foy neighbourhood, in large part because of the efforts of one man, shopkeeper Azzeddine Soufiane, who was among those shot to death during evening prayers.

Soufiane, 57, left his wife and children behind in his native Morocco some 30 years ago to put down roots in Quebec's capital city, a jolting experience for an engineer by trade who opened a halal butcher shop to save enough money to pay for his family's resettlement.

He was a pioneer of sorts as many French-speaking Arabs of his time opted to settle in much larger Montreal, where the comforts of home were more widely available.

'Like a big, big family'

Over the years, many immigrants from North Africa visited Boucherie Assalam to seek guidance from Soufiane, whether it be tips for navigating the immigration system, finding a job or integrating into their new surroundings.

"We are like a big, big family. We try to help each other. Each of these six deaths is like a death in the family," said a choked-up Mohamed Labidi, vice-president of the mosque, the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, located just two blocks from Soufiane's shop.
Friends and family of Azzeddine Soufiane placed bouquets of flowers in front of his halal butcher shop, Boucherie Assalam, Tuesday. (John Paul Tasker/CBC News)

Aside from being one of few places in this Roman Catholic town to sell halal meats, Boucherie Assalam is a gathering spot for the Muslim community, a place where people swap stories and enjoy each other's company.

The shop sat empty Tuesday with the door locked, lights off and some flower bouquets carefully placed at the entrance. Flyers announcing deep discounts on baby veal, lamb chop lunch plates and grilled chicken still hung on the door.

Regular customers Azzedine Najd and his wife, Fadwa, visited the site of the shooting Tuesday. They cried and shared their stories of the friendly butcher, a man who helped them find a place to live when they first moved to the city.

"He was always smiling," Najd said. "It's just so, so sad. We just don't feel safe anymore. We came here to pray, not get killed. We must now try to get justice for [Soufiane]."

Another elder statesmen of the Muslim community who was killed in Sunday's mass shooting was Khaled Belkacemi, 60, a professor of food science at Laval University, also just a few blocks from the mosque. Belkacemi and his wife, Safia Hamoudi, herself an instructor in the agriculture department, came to Canada from Algeria about 25 years ago.

Azzedine Najd and his wife Fadwa pay their respects at the memorial in front of the mosque. (John Paul Tasker/CBC News)

He convinced others to join him, including Ismail Fliss, another expert in food science who knew Belkacemi for two decades.

"We played soccer every Saturday together," Fliss said. "I know his wife, his two children. Our soccer group is shocked. It's difficult to describe what we feel now."

He said he hasn't spoken to his friend's wife yet, but he heard that the dean of the faculty of agriculture spoke to her yesterday and that she's beyond grief-stricken.

Khaled Belkacemi, pictured here with his wife, Safia Hamoudi, was a professor at Laval University. (Facebook)

Fliss said he couldn't believe the news until Belkacemi's photo flashed on his TV screen Monday evening. He feels pressure to come to terms with his friend's death quickly because they'd been working together on several research projects and took turns supervising the same graduate students — work that now falls to Fliss.

Valentin Leroy, a student of the late Khaled Belkacemi, said he'll remember his professor as someone who had a passion for food science and a love for his students. (John Paul Tasker/CBC News)

One of those students, Valentin Leroy, a native of France, was emotional Tuesday as he recalled memories of a teacher who quickly became a friend.

Leroy said Belkacemi was a quiet, dignified man who dedicated his life to helping students succeed.

"He was very attentive. He had the capacity to listen carefully, and he put up with answering my questions to him daily," Leroy said in an interview after a small memorial service at the university. "He always made sure my studies were going as well as possible. I'm just shocked to lose this person who meant so much to me."

'This must just be a nightmare'

Fliss said he's also mourning fellow Algerian, Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, a computer analyst who moved to Quebec City in 2012.

"Canada has lost a good person," Hassane's widow, Louiza, told Radio-Canada Tuesday.

"He was decent, honest and forthcoming. He loved Quebec because he thought the city was just so magnificent, and peaceful, but mostly because our kids loved it here."

She said there's a part of her "that's just gone."

"A few times, I've said to myself this must be just a nightmare, and I'll wake up. He'll come back, he'll call me. But I'll never see him again."

Labidi, the mosque vice-president, said the devastation is particularly palpable at Aboubaker Thabti's home, where his family was desperately trying to make funeral arrangements Tuesday.

Unlike Montreal, Quebec City doesn't have a Muslim burial ground so Thabti's funeral is on hold. The delay has been difficult for the family because Muslims are usually put to rest on the day of their death.

Mohamed Labidi, vice-president of the mosque, says the families of the six shooting victims are devastated but the tight-knit Muslim community is ready to offer its support. (John Paul Tasker/CBC News)

"When we came to the house, the first thing we see was the children crying, a son just 10 years old. He didn't know what happened. He was very close to his father, very close. I know him. It's very sad."

Labidi said Thabti's widow is feeling alone, but women from the community have been popping by to check in.

The family moved to Canada five years ago when Thabti, 44, found work as a pharmacist's aide.

"We offer our help, all our help, financial and social help to them," he said, sobbing. "Our sisters they are, all the time, with the families. They cook for them, they do everything for them, and us, as leaders, now we start getting money to help them."

'It breaks my heart'

Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, and Ibrahima Barry, 39, friends and neighbours originally from the same village in Guinea in West Africa, were two other newcomers to Canada who were killed Sunday.

Mamadou Tanou Barry was killed in Sunday night's shooting at a Quebec City mosque. (Moussa Sangare/Canadian Press)

Mamadou Tanou Barry's mother was in town for a visit, spending time with her three-year-old grandson and one-year-old granddaughter. 

''You can imagine the state she is in," said Souleymane Bah, a family friend and active member of the city's 450-strong Guinean community.

Ibrahima Barry was a father of two girls, ages 13 and 7, and two boys, 2 and 3. 

''No one is eternal, but imagine two people who are killed when they go to pray, in a mosque ... and leaving orphans behind,'' Bah said. ''I think of my own children, I look at them, and it breaks my heart."

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John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from CBC's Julia Page and Radio-Canada