One of the last things Aymen Derbali remembers is standing in the Quebec City mosque as a gunman opened fire on worshippers all around him.
But the father of three did not panic.
Instead, he drew the attacker’s focus on himself, in the hopes of saving his fellow congregants.
“I tried not to panic or flee,” Derbali recently told The Globe and Mail.
“I tried to concentrate so that he wouldn’t fire on others. I would rather have been paralysed for life than to have fled and been left unscathed, without having done something to help people.”
Six Muslim men were killed in the targeted attack on the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre on January 29.
Derbali was shot several times at close range and rushed to a local hospital in Quebec City, where he spent two months in a coma.
When he finally woke up, he learned that he would never walk again.
‘He is a hero’
Now, Canadians are raising money to help Derbali, who uses a wheelchair and is undergoing treatment, move into a new home with his family that will meet his needs.
“Essentially, he is a hero,” said Amira Elghawaby, an Ottawa-based volunteer with DawaNet, a Muslim community group in Ontario that organised the fundraiser.
“He was shot seven times. Two bullets are permanently lodged in his spinal chord now. He cannot walk. He has been in a rehabilitation centre since the tragedy,” Elghawaby told Al Jazeera.
Derbali’s wife and three children currently live in a small apartment on the fourth floor of a building in Quebec City, she said.
“It’s completely inaccessible. If there’s any type of emergency, if there’s a fire or anything else, there’s no way for him to leave safely,” Elghawaby said.
In a video shared by DawaNet, Derbali said his condition was improving every day.
“I’m moving my arms and I’m doing physiotherapy,” he said, thanking the people who have reached out to check on his health.
By Wednesday, the online campaign had raised just over $33,800 (over $43,500 Canadian dollars).
Organisers hope to raise $311,000 ($400,000 Canadian dollars) to help Derbali move into a home that is wheelchair accessible.
Elghawaby added that it is important for him to live near the mosque, where he still attends weekly Friday prayers.
“His heart is there. Even despite this tragedy, he’s very connected to the local community, to his brothers and sisters there,” she said.
“It really is up to all of us to step up and be a hero in his life.”
Muslim communities in Quebec and across Canada are still reeling from what happened.
Alexandre Bissonnette, a Quebec university student, was arrested and charged with six counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder in relation to the attack.
But as the one-year anniversary of the deadly shooting nears, Quebec City officials have warned about a rising number of hate incidents targeting the local Muslim community in 2017.
Robert Pigeon, the city’s police chief, recently told reporters that police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslims or Muslim institutions in the city doubled since the shooting.
So far this year, 71 hateful incidents were reported in Quebec City and 42 of those targeted Muslims, Pigeon said, according to CBC News.
Last year, 21 out of 57 total reported hate incidents in the city were directed at Muslims.
According to Elghawaby, Derbali’s story should be seen as “an incredible act of courage and sacrifice in the face of hatred”.
“The best way to confront hatred is through love. The love that already has been showered on Aymen and his family … is really hopeful,” she said.