3 Palestinian students shot in Vermont with pain and uncertain futures

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HAVERFORD, Pa. – In high school in Ramallah, they were three people who loved playing chess and having sleepovers, united in their desire to go to college in the United States.

On Saturday night, that journey took them to an unimaginable place: a shared hospital room in Burlington, Vt., and the pain and horror of being killed.

Tahseen Aliahmad was hit in the chest. Hisham Awartani had a bullet in his back. Kinnan Abdalhamid was shot from behind while trying to escape from the stranger who went off the porch and, without saying a word, opened fire.

“My closest friends,” Abdalhamid says of Aliahmad and Awartani, describing the hours before they were reunited in that hospital room as the longest of his life. “I wouldn’t be okay if I wasn’t around them.”

The attack on the three 20-year-olds – graduates of a Quaker school in the West Bank – has caused great fear throughout campuses throughout this country and especially at the centers where the young Palestinians ‘ study: Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Trinity College in Connecticut and Brown University in Rhode Island. Concerns about Islamophobia and antisemitism were already strong in their schools because of the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip. But the shooting in Vermont immediately turned those fears into something personal and visceral.

“If Kinnan, Tahseen and Hisham were killed, that means I and any other Palestinian could be next,” said Tala Qaraqe, a Jerusalem-born biology major at Haverford. grew up on the West Bank. “I feel unsafe and unprotected now more than ever. “

For the families of the three students, it has been a different kind of torture. Aliahmad’s aunt has spent a few weeks talking about what happened to her relatives in Gaza who fled their homes when bombs fell from the sky. Aliahmad, a math major at Trinity, was the only person she didn’t have to worry about.

Then came the call that her nephew had been shot. It felt “like a bullet in the heart,” said Taghreed Elkhodary of Amsterdam on Thursday.

Authorities have charged Jason Eaton, 48, with three counts of attempted second-degree murder. He reportedly confronted the students while they were taking an evening walk near Awartani’s grandmother’s home, where they were staying for the Thanksgiving holiday. Abdalhamid said they spoke a mixture of English and Arabic, and two wore a kaffiyeh, a Palestinian checkered garment often folded as a scarf.

At a press conference this week, the city’s police chief refused to give a motive for the shooting. Chittenden County Prosecutor Sarah George said authorities did not yet have evidence to consider the shooting a hate crime, although there was no question it was “an act of hate.” ” Eaton has pleaded not guilty.

Awartani, Abdalhamid and Aliahmad have known each other since childhood and their classes at the Ramallah Friends School, an institution founded in 1869.

Awartani is a math whiz who wrote a college application essay about how math theory applied to life, a teacher there recalled. Aliahmad was very interested in programming, and his knowledge often exceeded the school’s own information technology staff, said a classmate. Abdalhamid was an accomplished sprinter who loved biology and volunteered with an ambulance team delivering medicine to Bedouin children.

Both Awartani and Abdalhamid were born in the United States and are American citizens, but they grew up with Aliahmad in the West Bank. A wave of protests delayed their final exams as seniors and, then as now, some students and staff had to cross Israeli checkpoints to reach campus.

With courtyards, 19th century buildings and playing fields, the school aims to be a refuge from the strife outside its gates and inspires its students with the values ​​of its Quaker founders. “It is very difficult to practice non-violence, to practice peace and social justice in the midst of an eroding military operation that tries at every turn to take your land and hurt,” said Omar Imseeh Tesdell, chairman of the school board and a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

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In an interview Wednesday, Abdalhamid described the violence in the post as “a background fear in your head.” He said his family sent him to the United States because it was a safe place as well as an opportunity to excel.

He arrived in 2021 at Haverford, a nearly 200-year-old college with its own Quaker roots. He joined the track team, decided to do medicine and made a wide range of friends, including a biology major who later became his partner.

The student, a young man who asked not to be identified by name due to safety concerns, is Jewish and Black. He and Abdalhamid bonded over their love of running and weightlifting but also “our shared experiences of oppression”. When he learned Saturday that his friend had been shot, he rushed to Burlington to be “a member of that family [Kinnan] it wasn’t until the family arrived.”

The attack destroyed what had become a common tradition for Abdalhamid, Aliahmad and Awartani: Thanksgiving with grandmother, uncle, aunt and cousins. College students spent hours this holiday battling the FIFA video game and in epic rounds of the “Mastermind” board game. Just before the shooting, they had attended a birthday party for the 8-year-old Awartani twin cousins ​​at a bowling alley.

When they returned, they went for a walk around the area, following the same route they took the night before. Abdalhamid now asks if the gunman was waiting for them.

What happened next was “like in a nightmare.” Aliahmad was killed first, then Awartani. As Abdalhamid was hitting, he heard another shot. He jumped over a fence and went to a nearby house, where residents called 911. It was only then that he realized he was bleeding.

“I was sure my friends were dead,” he said.

Family members of the three Palestinian college students killed in Vermont on Nov. 25 said they fear the shootings were “motivated by hate.” (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

In their shared hospital room, the three fell back on old treatment equipment. “The way we deal with this, because we were raised in the occupied West Bank, is with humor,” said Abdalhamid.

But their best efforts could not hide the seriousness of their situation. Aliahmad was coughing up blood; every time he did, he said he felt like being stabbed. Awartani has a shot high near his back. He will probably be there for the rest of his life, said his uncle, Rich Price, and it is not clear if he will walk again.

Price said Wednesday that Awartani, a math and archeology double major who speaks six languages, listens to educational podcasts from his hospital bed. Other friends say he has kept up his habit of sending them funny videos.

“He’s trying so hard,” said Mahmoud Hallak, his roommate at Brown. “He knows people are worried about him.”

Hallak’s family came to the United States as refugees from Syria in 2016. He said there is “tremendous fear” among the university’s Arab and Muslim community because of last weekend’s shooting. He has heard conversations between students and their parents, with parents begging their children not to wear the kaffiyeh and not to speak Arabic.

“This is our culture,” Hallak said of the kaffiyeh. “We want to continue doing it.”

On each of the three campuses – Brown on Monday, Haverford on Tuesday, Trinity on Wednesday – students have held vigils for their injured classmates.

At Brown, a professor read Awartani’s drafted statement from the hospital that thanked everyone present but urged them to view him as “one casualty in a much larger conflict” and as ” a proud member of the oppressed.” Student President Christina Paxson shouted as she tried to address those gathered. She did not finish her comments, but the university later posted them online.

“There is so much we are doing and will continue to do, to ensure that this community – the Brown community – is a place where everyone is safe,” read the speech.

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But some students said that the university has not taken their issues seriously. Aboud Ashhab, a junior, said he, Awartani and other Palestinian students met with the administration last month and expressed their concern about threats and harassment on campus. “The administration did nothing to protect us,” he said. “The double standard is clear.”

Meanwhile, slow progress is underway in Vermont. Abdalhamid was released from the hospital and reunited with his mother, who flew in from Ramallah. He is not sure when, or if, he will return to Haverford. At night he is awakened by sudden noises: “I still have this fear in my head.”

In a short message, Aliahmad wrote that the shooter targeted him because he was wearing a kaffiyeh. “I was shot for being Palestinian,” he texted. “That’s why it doesn’t matter who I am. … I was not an individual to the shooter.”

He and Awartani still share a hospital room. Aliahmad’s aunt said he is still weak from blood loss. Awartani’s uncle said he cannot move his lower extremities.

The uncle has hope, however. Recovery from a spinal cord injury is partly about treatment and partly about a person’s spirit and mind, Price noted. When it comes to the latter, “Hisham is going to knock it out of the park. “

Slater reported from Williamstown, Mass. Abigail Hauslohner and Razzan Nakhlawi in Washington contributed to this report.

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