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3 Palestinian students shot in Vermont face pain and uncertain futures

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HAVERFORD, Pa. — In high school in Ramallah, they were a trio who loved playing chess and having sleepovers, united in their ambition to go to college in the United States.

On Saturday night, that journey brought them to an unthinkable place: a shared hospital room in Burlington, Vt., and the pain and terror of having been shot.

Tahseen Aliahmad was hit in the chest. Hisham Awartani had a bullet lodged in his spine. Kinnan Abdalhamid was shot from behind as he tried to escape the stranger who had stepped off a 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 sent a shock wave of fear across campuses around this country and particularly at the institutions where the young Palestinians are studying: Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Trinity College in Connecticut and Brown University in Rhode Island. Concerns about Islamophobia and antisemitism were already rife at their schools because of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip. Yet the shooting in Vermont immediately turned those fears into something personal and visceral.

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

For the three students’ families, there has been a different kind of torment. Aliahmad’s aunt has spent recent weeks frantic over the fate of relatives in Gaza who fled their homes as bombs fell from the sky. Aliahmad, a math major at Trinity, was the one 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,” Taghreed El Khodary said from Amsterdam on Thursday.

Authorities have charged Jason Eaton, 48, with three counts of second-degree attempted murder. He allegedly confronted the students as they took an evening stroll near Awartani’s grandmother’s home, where they were staying for the Thanksgiving holiday. Abdalhamid said they were speaking a mixture of English and Arabic, and two were wearing a kaffiyeh, a checkered Palestinian garment often wrapped as a scarf.

At a news conference this week, the city’s police chief declined to provide a motive for the shooting. Chittenden County prosecutor Sarah George said that authorities did not yet have evidence to deem the shooting a hate crime, though there was no question it was “a hateful act.” Eaton has pleaded not guilty.

Awartani, Abdalhamid and Aliahmad have known one another 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 a mathematical theory applied to life, a teacher there recalled. Aliahmad’s passion was programming, and his knowledge often outstripped the school’s own information-technology staff, a classmate said. Abdalhamid was an accomplished sprinter who loved biology and volunteered with an ambulance crew delivering medication to Bedouin children.

Both Awartani and Abdalhamid were born in the United States but grew up along with Aliahmad in the occupied 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 the campus.

With its courtyards, 19th-century buildings and playing fields, the school aspires to be a haven from the strife outside its gates and inculcate its students with the values of its Quaker founders. “To practice nonviolence, to practice peace and social justice amid a grinding military occupation which seeks at every turn to take your land and hurt you is very, very difficult,” said Omar Imseeh Tesdell, the chairman of the school’s board and a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

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During an interview on Wednesday, Abdalhamid described the violence of the occupation as a “background fear in your head.” He said his family sent him to the United States because it represented 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 pursue medicine and made a wide array of friends, including a fellow biology major who later became his suitemate.

The student, a junior who asked not to be identified by name because of safety concerns, is Jewish and Black. He and Abdalhamid bonded over their shared love of running and lifting weights but also “our shared experiences of oppression.” When he learned Saturday that his friend had been shot, he quickly headed to Burlington to be “the family member that [Kinnan] didn’t have until family arrived.”

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

Upon their return, they went for a walk around the neighborhood, following the same route they had taken the previous evening. Abdalhamid now wonders if the gunman was waiting for them.

What happened next played out “as if in a nightmare.” Aliahmad was shot first, then Awartani. As Abdalhamid bolted, he heard another gunshot. He jumped over a fence and limped to a nearby house, where residents called 911. Only then did he realize he was bleeding.

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

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

In their shared hospital room, the three fell back on an old coping mechanism. “The way we deal with this, because we were raised in the West Bank under occupation, is with humor,” Abdalhamid said.

But their best attempts could not mask the grimness of the situation. Aliahmad was coughing blood; every time he did, he said it felt like being stabbed. Awartani has a bullet lodged high near his spine. It will probably be there for the rest of his life, said his uncle, Rich Price, and it is unclear if he will walk again.

Price said Wednesday that Awartani, a dual math and archaeology major who speaks six languages, is listening to educational podcasts from his hospital bed. Other friends say he has kept up his practice of sending them funny videos.

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

Hallak’s family came to the United States as refugees from Syria in 2016. He said there is “immense fear” among the university’s Arab and Muslim community in the wake of last weekend’s shooting. He has overheard 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 a statement Awartani drafted from the hospital that thanked everyone present but urged them to see him as “one casualty in a much larger conflict” and a “proud member of a people being oppressed.” Students shouted down President Christina Paxson as she tried to address those gathered. She didn’t finish her remarks, but the university later posted them online.

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

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

Meanwhile, a slow recovery is underway in Vermont. Abdalhamid was discharged from the hospital and reunited with his mother, who flew in from Ramallah. He isn’t sure when, or if, he will return to Haverford. At night he’s jolted awake by sudden noises: “I still have this fear in my head.”

In a brief message, Aliahmad wrote that the shooter targeted him because he was wearing a kaffiyeh. “I got shot for being Palestinian,” he texted. “This is why who I am doesn’t matter. … I wasn’t an individual to the shooter.”

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

The uncle has hope, though. Healing from a spinal injury is partly about treatment and partly about a person’s spirit and mind-set, 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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