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‘It feels more personal than it did before’: Brown University community reacts to shooting of Palestinian students in Vermont

Hisham Awartani, a junior at Brown, was one of the three victims attacked near the University of Vermont on Saturday. The attack is under investigation as a possible hate crime.

Brown University's Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life will hold a vigil on the Main Green on Monday @ 4:30 following the shooting of Palestinian student Hisham Awartani.Glenn Osmundson

PROVIDENCE — Hundreds of Brown University students, faculty members, and community members gathered on the campus’ main green Monday night for a vigil that began with prayer and somber cello music but ended in a protest where students wearing red gloves crowded around the university’s president, demanding that Brown divest from weapons manufacturers that have sold arms to Israel and saying she had blood on her hands.

The vigil was intended to be a call for peace and healing for the university community, which is reeling after learning that a Brown University junior, Hisham Awartani, was one of the three young men of Palestinian descent who was shot and injured in Burlington, Vermont, on Saturday.

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Awartani told police he and his friends, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, were speaking a mixture of English and Arabic as they walked down North Prospect Street near the University of Vermont campus. Two of them were wearing Keffiyeh, or Palestinian scarves, when a man stepped off a porch and shot them. All three victims are 20 years old. Two are American citizens and the third a legal resident. The students — who attend Brown University, Haverford College, and Trinity College, according to the schools — were in Burlington visiting Awartani’s relatives over the Thanksgiving holiday.

From left: Tahseen Aliahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Hisham Awartani posing for a photograph. The three men were all injured in a triple shooting Saturday. Photo provided by their families through the Institute for Middle East Understanding.Photo provided by their families through the Institute for Middle East Understanding.

Jason J. Eaton, 48, of Burlington, was arrested shortly after 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Authorities are investigating the attack as as a possible hate crime.

At the vigil Beshara Doumani, a professor of Palestinian studies at Brown, shared a text message sent to him by Awartani that said the shooting in Vermont is “part of a larger story.”

“This hideous crime did not happen in a vacuum,” Doumani read. “As much as I appreciate the love every single one of you here today I am but one casualty in this much wider conflict. Had I been shot in the West Bank, where I grew up, the medical services who saved my life here would have likely been withheld by the Israeli Army.”

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“Any attack like this is horrific, be it here or in Palestine,” Doumani read. “This is why when you send your wishes and light your candles for me today, your mind should not be focused on me as an individual but as a proud member of a people being oppressed.”

During the vigil, Brown University President Christina H. Paxton said that Awartani’s family was “Brown’s family,” and that the university stood with him. She noted that since the Oct. 7th terrorist attacks by Hamas and Israel’s military response in Gaza, “no one in this region has been left unscarred.”

“Here in this country, and even sadly on this campus, we’ve seen an increase in hate against Palestinians and Muslims, Jews, and others,” said Paxson.

“We’re powerless to do everything we’d like to do,” said Paxson, which fueled rounds of angry chants from students who shouted “shame,” and “divest.”

People who had gathered on the porch at Partridge Hall, across the street from the green, head to the event at Brown. Partridge Hall is home to the Brown Center for Students of Color. Glenn Osmundson

While the motive for the shooting is unclear, students at Brown said they were horrified to learn that a fellow student was shot over the weekend.

“It’s shock and sadness,” said one Palestinian student, a senior who requested anonymity on Monday because she fears for her safety. She told the Globe she knows Awartani, as do many of her friends. She said the war between Israel and Hamas has made it hard to focus on school.

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“Especially yesterday,” she said. “Everyone’s coming out of Thanksgiving, procrastinating assignments. I just hung out with a friend, sad, and we mourned that it [the shooting] happened.”

She said her mom texted her this morning to “be safe.”

At a press briefing Monday in Burlington with local and federal officials, Awartani’s uncle, Rich Price, said all three students remain in intensive care.

“I think Kinnan’s injuries are, though difficult, he will make a full and speedy recovery,” Price said. “Tahseen is in quite a lot of pain. And my nephew Hisham received a spinal injury as a result of the shooting and faces a long recovery.”

Jason Goodman, a senior at Brown, said Monday he was horrified to hear a peer had been shot over the weekend. He said while he didn’t know Awartani, he found it “really upsetting” that violence against Palestinian American students had touched the Brown community.

“It feels more personal than it did before,” Goodman said.

Goodman said he and his friends had been watching the news all weekend.

“A lot of us yesterday were really holding our breath, waiting to hear if we lost a member of our community or not,” Goodman said. “Certainly that was the most horrible part.”

The atmosphere on campus felt different on Monday, Goodman said. He observed more students on campus wearing keffiyehs than he has before, he said. People are showing support for the three victims, he said.

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“That solidarity is cool to see,” he said.

Talia Sawiris, a senior at Brown, is the president of Brown Arab Society, a student cultural group with about 150 members, including Awartani. Sawiris said she was “horrified and sad” to learn that a friend and community member was shot over the weekend.

She described the mood on campus on Monday as a mix of “profound sadness and fear,” but also frustration.

Since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas, the student group’s members “have been talking about the ways in which the dehumanization and the erasure of Palestinian life in America makes Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim [students] more susceptible to incidents of hate,” Sawiris said.

“I find it shameful that we had to wait until a student was shot before material support for our students on this campus was extended by this administration,” she said.

Brown Arab Society and other student groups — including Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, BrownU Jews for Ceasefire Now, and Brown Palestine Solidarity Caucus — have been asking Brown University President Christina Paxson to condemn violence against Palestinians, and divest from companies that provide military aid to Israel.

”Our students have directly told Paxson that Brown’s investment in the military industrial complex jeopardizes our safety,” Sawiris said. By not divesting, the university is “contributing to the atmosphere of dehumanization and erasure of Palestinian people,” she said.

“Which honestly, is directly to blame for Hisham’s shooting and for the violence he’s experiencing,” she added.

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At the vigil, many in the audience wore Keffiyeh in support of Awartani. Doumani told the crowd they should “pay our respects to [Awartani] by continuing to stand what he stands for. ... To continue the struggle he and the students before him started, which as you say, is to divest.”

As the vigil ended, students walked through campus carrying signs and shouting “Brown divest!”

This article has been updated with news from the vigil and protest.


Brittany Bowker can be reached at brittany.bowker@globe.com. Follow her @brittbowker and also on Instagram @brittbowker. Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.