For Palestinian Students Shot in Vermont, Two Worlds Collapsed Into One

In many ways, the three young men who were shot as they ambled down a sidewalk last Saturday in Burlington, Vt., were like any other longtime friends reuniting on a leisurely Thanksgiving weekend.

What made them different may have also made them targets: Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Hisham Awartani are Palestinian Americans, navigating between the peaceful privilege of college life in America and the dangerous instability of their conflict-ravaged homeland some 5,000 miles away.

In an instant, one of the injured students said on Wednesday, those two worlds collapsed into one, shaking his sense of the United States as safer. In his first interview since the shooting, a day after he was discharged from the hospital, Mr. Abdalhamid said that he expects the attack to have a lasting impact — not only for him and his friends, but for every Palestinian.

“In the West Bank, we’re not safe because of the occupation, and as a Palestinian American, I’m not safe in America because of people like this that might come out,” he said. “It’s just something that’s very hard to grapple with.”

The suspect in the shootings, Jason J. Eaton, 48, of Burlington, pleaded not guilty on Monday to three counts of attempted second-degree murder. Investigators have not determined if it was a hate crime, but Mr. Abdalhamid said he believes he and his friends, all 20, were attacked because they were speaking a mix of Arabic and English — “Arabish,” he called it — and wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs, traditional scarves.

Mr. Abdalhamid, an aspiring doctor and a junior at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, said he wondered if the shooting would make families like his reluctant to send their children to school in the United States, an achievement that had made his parents proud.

“We kind of have this image of this place” as being far safer than the West Bank and Palestine, he said. “It’s just kind of disheartening that now I feel like this is kind of shattering that image.”

Mr. Awartani, a Brown University junior who excels in math and had lately discovered a passion for archaeology, suffered a spinal injury that could result in permanent paralysis, his family said. Mr. Ali Ahmad, a Trinity College sophomore described as a gifted writer, web designer and conversationalist, was shot in the chest. Both remained in the hospital on Wednesday.

The homes of Mr. Awartani’s uncle and grandmother in Burlington, a city of 45,000 on the shores of Lake Champlain, had been a welcome refuge. The friends had spent the weekend playing board games and table tennis with Mr. Awartani’s five young cousins, keeping up with homework and taking rambling walks while catching up.

“I think they were really glad to reconnect, and provide each other comfort, after a fraught few weeks,” said Rich Price, Mr. Awartani’s uncle, who hosted the friends for the holiday.

“They are normal 20-year-olds, but they’re also extraordinary 20-year-olds,” Mr. Price said. “They have shown remarkable resilience and strength, even humor, and I think being Palestinian in this world demands those traits. So in some respects, they have been trained for very difficult moments, for hardship, and they have demonstrated that.”

The lessons of their upbringing in the West Bank, where they met as young boys, had traveled with them to their new lives in the United States. Educated at a Quaker school in Ramallah, its culture steeped in values including social justice and nonviolence, two of the young men had spoken out on their U.S. campuses about the suffering of Palestinians after a terrorist attack by Hamas last month led Israel to besiege Gaza.

From his hospital bed in Vermont, as he wrestled with the prospect of permanent disability, Mr. Awartani sent a message that was read at a vigil on the Brown campus in Providence on Monday night. In it, he asked his peers to remember that the attack on him did not happen “in a vacuum” but was part of “a larger story.”

“I understand that the pain is so much more real and immediate because many of you know me,” Mr. Awartani wrote, “but any attack like this is horrific, be it here or in Palestine. This is why when you send your wishes and light your candles for me today, your mind should not just be focused on me as an individual, rather as a proud member of a people being oppressed.”

Friends said Mr. Awartani had joined other students in calling for Brown’s leaders to speak out on behalf of Palestinians, just as they had publicly condemned the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas.

Aboud Ashhab, a Brown classmate and longtime friend of Mr. Awartani, said in an interview that the two, along with several other students, had met with administrators to express their concerns about Arab students’ safety but found the response disappointing.

Hisham Awartani, left, and Kinnan Abdalhamid, right, as children. Credit…Ramallah Friends School

At Haverford, near Philadelphia, Mr. Abdalhamid, too, had spoken out, leading campus events meant to raise awareness of Palestinian suffering. Speaking after a candlelight vigil for Mr. Abdalhamid on Tuesday night, John McKnight, dean of the college, described the young man as committed to the cause of educating people he believed were “uninformed, or misinformed” about his homeland.

Though Mr. Abdalhamid has dual Palestinian-American citizenship, he is “Palestinian in his core,” Mr. McKnight said.

The students’ activism followed naturally from their education at the Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank, where the three bonded as first graders and stayed close through their high school graduation in 2021.

Currently open while the public schools in the West Bank have closed amid the conflict, the school has survived bombings and occupations, a lesson for its students in persistence, said its leaders. Its 1,600 students include Muslims and Christians, American expatriates, and mixed-religion and intercultural families.

“It’s a place that teaches them how to live, and to be their best selves, under duress, in a state of continual uncertainty,” said Omar Tesdell, the head of the school’s board of trustees.

Nearly all graduates go on to college; about 40 percent enroll abroad. In the wake of the Vermont attack, some parents have voiced fears of what could happen to their children in the United States, said Rania Maayeh, the head of school.

Hamzah Al-Shammari, a Trinity College freshman from Iraq and a friend of Mr. Ali Ahmad who said they liked to talk about poetry and music, said that like his injured friend, he had sometimes worn his kaffiyeh on campus and beyond.

But Mr. Al-Shammari said he plans to wear it less in the days and weeks ahead, mindful of “the danger it could bring to me and my friends.”

Recalling the “surreal” moment that changed their lives, Mr. Abdalhamid said he had heard bullets and the thuds of his two friends hitting the ground after a man had walked off a porch they were passing, approached them and pulled out a gun. Mr. Abdalhamid was shot in the backside as he ran away, he said, jumping a fence and hiding in a stranger’s backyard.

I thought both of my friends were dead,” he said, “because he shot them from around 10 feet away.”

After hiding for a minute or so, he said, he decided to keep moving, worried that the shooter would come looking for him. He limped to another house that had lights on, knocked on the glass and asked the residents to call 911.

With some medical training, he said, he knew he was losing blood; as he grew dizzy, he told the homeowners he needed an ice pack. On the way to the hospital in an ambulance, he learned that his friends were still alive.

Since the attack, Mr. Abdalhamid said that he has struggled with new fears.

“Even going from one hotel room to the other down the hall, I have to look around in case someone’s going to attack me,” he said.

Asked if he will continue to wear his kaffiyeh in public, Mr. Abdalhamid said that he feels “an obligation” to do so.

Not wearing it, he added, would feel “like giving up on your own culture.”

Jon Hurdle contributed reporting from Haverford, Pa.