Paralyzed survivor of Quebec mosque attack is still fighting to find peace

On the anniversary of the attack on a mosque in Quebec, one of the survivors, Aymen Derbali, is still putting his life back together.

Aymen Derbali spent months in a coma after being shot seven times

Aymen Derbali sits at the front of the prayer room where he was shot a year ago. Returning to the mosque was a high priority for him. (Julia Page/CBC)
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Originally published on Jan. 29, 2018.

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There are still bullets in the wall of the Quebec mosque.

By the door, the shoes of six murdered men are still paired side-by-side. No one has moved them.

They died when a gunman opened fire during evening prayers a year ago.

More than a dozen people were injured, among them Aymen Derbali, who spent months in a coma and woke up to learn he had suffered life-changing injuries.

"I felt that I have a new body. I wasn't able to move any part of my body. This feeling was very difficult for me."

Shoes at the entrance to the mosque. Pairs belonging to those who died are still where their owners left them that night. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

Derbali made a last-minute decision to attend prayers that night. When he entered the mosque, the attack had already begun. He tried to put himself between the gunman and the dozens of people who had gathered to pray.

He was shot seven times — in his leg, his abdomen, his chin.

The man accused of shooting him, Alexandre Bissonnette, will stand trial in March, on six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.

The last thing he remembers is the screaming, a sound which still haunts him. 3:04

The last thing Derbali remembers is the screaming, a sound which still haunts him.

When he woke up almost two months later, his wife Nedra Zahouani was by his side.

Derbali has spent months in gruelling physiotherapy sessions. He is a tetraplegic; he's lost the use of his legs, and has only partial use of his arms.

What drives him is the hope of returning to live with his wife and their three children: Ayoub and Youssouf, five, and his 22-month-old daughter Maryem.

Aymen Derbali with his daughter Maryem. He was shot seven times in the attack last year. (Aymen Derbali)

For now, he comes home at the weekend to spend time with his family in their fourth-floor apartment. Their home has been rearranged, but lacks the space and equipment to cater to Derbali's needs — a fund to improve his living conditions has already raised over $325,000.

"He's brave. It's not only him. The entire family is holding out hope," said his wife Nedra.

"Whether he's in a chair or on his legs, nothing has changed for us."

"Aymen is Aymen. And we love him very much."

"Aymen is Aymen. And we love him very much.” 2:05

Since July 2017, he has lived in a rehabilitation centre close to the mosque. When he arrived, the first thing he wanted was to return there to pray.

"It was very important for me to go back and to pray. It was very emotional."

Derbali was close to some of the men who died that night, and has struggled to come to terms with their deaths.

"I couldn't sleep, and I was hearing all the time — that screaming. I was blaming myself. Not to be able to do something... I was asking myself why I didn't catch him."

Over time, he has learned to forgive himself, with the support of those around him.

Derbali at home with his wife and children during a weekend visit. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

Derbali said the community has always been close, but since the attack, the community has come together "like one body."

"It's not easy to pass through these events. Our life has changed since that moment," he said.

"This is life. It's our destiny so we have to accept it, and we have to try to see all the good things, instead of seeing the bad things."

Update Aug. 27, 2018: The fundraiser to help the Derbali family buy a wheelchair accessible home raised more than $400,000.

Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six charges of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder. Prosecutors have asked the judge for a life sentence with no chance of parole for 150 years. The judge's sentence is expected this fall. 

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This documentary was produced by Susan Ferreira and The Current's documentary editor Joan Webber.