BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Nearly a week after three college students of Palestinian descent were shot and seriously wounded while taking an evening walk, relatives of two of the victims have arrived in Vermont from the war-torn West Bank, grappling with a new reality that has shattered their lives and a place they thought was a safe haven.
Elizabeth Price and her husband Ali Awartani flew in Wednesday just as their son, Hisham Awartani, underwent surgery. After the Israel-Hamas war erupted in early October, they decided it would be safer for Hisham to stay in the United States instead of coming home for the holidays.
Now they don’t know if he will ever walk again.
WATCH: Mothers of Palestinian students shot in Vermont discuss recovery and possible motive
“When my nephew came to this country to pursue his studies and when he came to stay with me for Thanksgiving in Burlington, Vermont, it never occurred to me that he may be victim to this type of violence,” Awartani’s uncle Rich Price said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday. “And so I feel a sense of shame, I feel a sense of outrage, and it’s been a really difficult awakening to the fact that even here — even in this country, even in this town — that many of the risks that exist for my nephew and his friends in Palestine exist for them here.”
Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, all age 20 and attending colleges in the eastern U.S., were visiting Price and his family for the holiday break. The three have been friends since first grade at Ramallah Friends School, a private school in the West Bank. While they were out for a walk Saturday evening after a family birthday party, a man approached them and shot them without saying a word, they told police.
Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot near the University of Vermont in Burlington on Nov. 25, 2023, are seen in this undated handout photo. Photo shared by Awartani family/Handout via REUTERS
The young men were speaking in a mix of English and Arabic and two of them were also wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves when they were shot, Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said.
Abdalhamid ran when the man started shooting and jumped over a fence. He hid in a backyard for a minute shaking, fearing the man was after him and that his friends were dead, before going to a house that had lights on and urging them to call 911, he told the AP on Friday. He learned at the University of Vermont Medical Center that his friends were alive but more seriously injured and asked to be placed in the intensive care room with them, he said.
“Palestinians in general and in the U.S. are suffering from hate. I don’t think any race or ethnicity should be targeted like that,” Abdalhamid said in the hotel where he’s staying with his mother, Tamara Tamimi, after being released from the hospital earlier in the week.
Tamimi arrived in Vermont Wednesday from Jerusalem. After she and her husband got the 3 a.m. phone call that her son and his two friends were shot, she said she was relieved to talk to Kinnan from the emergency room — that he was alive. But she later fell apart, she said.
“I remember the overwhelming feeling was enough. It’s just enough. It’s enough pain for Palestinians. We’re already grieving. We’re already carrying so much grief,” she said.
She said her son has been upset about what’s happening in Gaza. “We’ve all been in so much pain and to have this happen, I really just fell apart and started throwing things around with so much anger saying, ‘There’s nowhere safe for us. There’s no where safe for Palestinians. Where are we supposed to go?’”
READ MORE: Killing of Muslim boy outside of Chicago was hate crime in response to Israel-Hamas war, police say
Ahmad’s parents are expected to arrive in Vermont on Saturday.
Carmen Abdelhadi, the middle school librarian at the Ramallah Friends School, remembers meeting the three as fourth graders. When she heard about the shooting, she and others in their community were shocked and “outraged” because “we know them.”
“Whenever I read something about them, I cry. It could have happened to any of our sons. My son is wearing the same scarf,” she said. “It’s devastating. It’s devastating on top of everything that we are going through.”
Awartani, she recalled, could always be found with a book while Abdalhamid “didn’t have a bad bone” in his body and was loved by everyone, she said. And Ahmad, she said, was the sensible one who found a love of poetry early on and went on to show an aptitude in science and tech.
“I see my son in every one of them,” Abdelhadi said.
Awartani suffered a spinal injury in the shooting. A bullet that is still lodged in his spine is unlikely to be removed and he is currently paralyzed from the chest down, Rich Price said. “We don’t know what the long-term prognosis is,” he said.
Still, Awartani’s uncle said he has the will and resilience for the recovery.
“He was concerned for his friends, who were with him, their well-being and recovery. And he was also deeply concerned that so much attention was being brought to him and he’s thinking about the thousands of people that are dead, the now 80 percent of Gazans who have been displaced from their homes,” Price said, wearing a keffiyeh in solidarity with the three young men. “There are dozens of Hishams that are in the list of the dead in Gaza, and he’s saying, ‘I’m the Hisham that you know. What about the Hishams you don’t know?’”
The shooting last weekend came as threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities have increased across the U.S. in the weeks since the war began.
The suspected gunman, Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday at his apartment, where he answered the door with his hands raised and told federal agents he had been waiting for them. Eaton has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder and is currently being held without bail.
Authorities are investigating the shooting as a possible a hate crime.
Associated Press reporter Michael Casey contributed to this report from Boston.