3 Palestinian college students were shot on a walk in Vermont – where their relatives thought they’d be safe

Loved ones thought the three Palestinian college students who’d grown up like brothers would be safer in the United States – certainly in Vermont, celebrating a classic American holiday – than back in Israeli-occupied Ramallah.

Now, they are living their worst nightmares.

“Kinnan grew up in the West Bank, and we always thought that that could be more of a risk in terms of his safety, and sending him here would be the right decision,” an uncle of one of the young men said Monday.

“I feel somehow betrayed in that decision here.”

His disillusionment was prompted by the gunfire unleashed Saturday on the trio of 20-year-olds – two wearing traditional Palestinian scarves known as keffiyehs – as they were out for a walk in Burlington, chatting as they often did in English and Arabic. Hisham Awartani of Brown University in Rhode Island, Kinnan Abdalhamid of Haverford College in Pennsylvania and Tahseen Ali Ahmad of Trinity College in Connecticut were treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center’s intensive care unit; one can’t move his legs, while another was still in treatment and the third has been released.

“We’re just trying to come to terms with everything,” added Abdalhamid’s uncle, Radi Tamimi, during a news conference.

The childhood friends had gone to Vermont for the Thanksgiving holiday, hosted by Awartani’s uncle, Rich Price. After a birthday party for Price’s 8-year-old twin sons, they decided to take a stroll around the block.

That’s when a gunman fired, striking all three, the city’s police chief has said.

“They grew up under military occupation, and who would imagine that they would come to a place like this to celebrate Thanksgiving and this is when their lives would be at risk,” Price said.

Abdalhamid will have a “full and speedy recovery,” Price said during the news conference, even as Ahmad was “in quite a lot of pain.” Awartani, meanwhile, suffered an “incomplete spinal injury,” meaning he can feel his legs but can’t move them, said his mother, Elizabeth Price, Rich’s sister. His clavicle also is broken and his thumb fractured, she said, and because of the bullet embedded in his back, he has difficulty regulating his body temperature.

The shooting comes at a time when Muslims, Palestinians, Jews and others in the US say they are becoming increasingly fearful of hate-motivated attacks as war between Israel and Hamas continues in the Middle East. Recent incidents like the fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy near Chicago and the death of a Jewish protester during a rally in Southern California highlight those raging tensions.

In the Vermont attack, Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday and charged with three counts of attempted second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty Monday and is being held without bond.

Childhood friends turned brothers

Awartani, Abdalhamid and Ahmad have been friends since grade school, Price told CNN on Monday from Ramallah. Before coming to the United States for college, they went to school together at the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker-run, private, non-profit school in the Israeli-occupied city, said the head of the school, Rania Maayeh.

In Ramallah and surrounding villages, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see and experience violence, with the Israeli military frequently entering the city, raiding homes, arresting students and activists, and setting up checkpoints that restricted where residents could go in what the Israeli Defense Forces describes as operations against militant groups.

All three young men wounded in Vermont were born shortly before the end of the Second Intifada, a violent popular uprising of Palestinians over Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that claimed thousands of lives.

Growing up in the West Bank, the boys may have experienced curfews, electricity cuts and military raids on homes, businesses, schools. Youth who protested against the occupation were regularly met with live fire and tear gas from Israeli soldiers – a highly volatile environment that could have esc alated in mere minutes.

“Had I been shot in the West Bank where I grew up, the medical services which saved my life here would likely have been withheld by the Israeli army,” read a text from Awartani to a Brown University professor that was read aloud Monday night at a school vigil. “The soldier who would’ve shot me would go home and never be convicted.”

Kinnan Abdalhamid, right, and Hisham Awartani have been described as "lifelong friends." - Institute for Middle East
Kinnan Abdalhamid, right, and Hisham Awartani have been described as "lifelong friends." - Institute for Middle East

For parents, securing their children’s safety in Ramallah long has been a nightmare. For students, it’s hard to dream big in the Palestinian territories, where unlike in the US, the occupation – rather than the sky – is the limit.

Still, Awartani, Abdalhamid and Ahmad earned their way into US colleges – their aspiration from a very young age, said Price, whose son is a junior at Brown, double-majoring in mathematics and archeology.

“They’re all geniuses,” she said. “They’re like my children, they grew up in my house.”

“They consider themselves brothers,” Price told CNN. “Hisham will say that he works hard at college because he wants to live up to the idea that his friends have of him.”

“It’s not competition; (Hisham) just knows that they support him to be all that he can achieve,” she said.

Tahseen Ahmad was among three Palestinian students shot Saturday in Burlington, Vermont. - Institute for Middle East
Tahseen Ahmad was among three Palestinian students shot Saturday in Burlington, Vermont. - Institute for Middle East

The mother of three has fond memories of her multilingual eldest son and his friends having deep conversations about politics, history, morals and philosophy, Price explained. Even at a young age, their talks were highly intellectual.

“I enjoy every moment I have with them,” she said. “They are funny, they are intelligent and I learn from them … these are bright young stars of the future that were gunned down.”

‘A dangerous time in America’

The wounded students’ families fear their attack was motivated by hate because two were wearing keffiyehs. Eaton’s attorney after Monday’s hearing said it was “premature to speculate” about a possible hate crime motivation, and authorities are still investigating.

“This is a dangerous time in America if you are associated with a group that is involved in these conflicts, and there’s too much hate speech against all sides. And in that toxic context, people take action on their own with devastating consequences,” Price said.

Price, along with another student’s family, was traveling Tuesday to the US, she said. Another family is getting assistance with expedited visas from the US Embassy, a source at the Department of Homeland Security confirmed to CNN.

The notion the attack was random doesn’t resonate with Tamimi, he said, though he and other relatives are “absolutely willing to wait to find out and let due process take its course.”

Now out of the hospital, Abdelhamid “is still shaken from this horrific attack,” his parents wrote Tuesday, adding they “know that this tragedy will shape the rest of our lives.”

“We are extremely proud of our son,” they said. “In the face of hate, he has exhibited courage and strength. No child should have to endure this pain.”

While Price is interested in the investigation, her focus remains on her son’s future.

“I’m more caring about what’s happened with my son,” she said. “I would want anyone who shot him to be behind bars so that there’s no chance that could happen again. But I also want to focus on making sure that my son heals … psychologically and physically.”

All three families had been excited for their boys to continue their education in the US “and believed that they would be safe here,” they wrote Monday in a joint statement.

Instead, they wrote, the students, “were viciously targeted in a brutal attack that plunged us as parents into our worst nightmares.”

CNN’s Khalil Abdallah, Elizabeth Wolfe, Melissa Alonso and Celina Tebor contributed to this report.

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