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In Vermont, a Thanksgiving tradition and time shared by lifelong friends ruined by gunfire

Since he enrolled at Brown University three years ago, Hisham Awartani always spent the Thanksgiving holiday with his relatives in Vermont. After a gunman shot him and two of his friends as they walked and talked on a Burlington sidewalk, he and his family are just thankful he’s alive.

Vermont officials hold press conference on shootings of three Palestinian college students
Vermont officials and family members of the victims spoke at a press conference on Monday afternoon in response to the shooting.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Ever since he enrolled at Brown University three years ago, Hisham Awartani made the trek north from Providence to Vermont every Thanksgiving to spend the long holiday weekend with relatives.

From left, Tahseen Aliahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Hisham Awartani.

For the first two years, he brought along one of his two lifelong friends, Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College, or Tahseen Ali Ahmad, who attends Trinity College. This year was special, though, because for the first time all three of the Palestinian college juniors were here together for the long weekend. They grew up and went to school together in Ramallah, in the West Bank, and treasured their reunions.

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They stayed here at the home of Awartani’s grandmother, Marian Price, and spent much of their time next door, at the home of his aunt and uncle, Kimberly and Rich Price.

On Saturday, the three 20-year-olds joined the Price family at a bowling alley for a birthday party for Awartani’s 8-year-old twin cousins, Matthew and Merrett Price.

“As college students, they had every right to say, ‘A birthday party for 8-year-olds, that sounds terrible.’ But they wanted to be there for my sons,” Rich Price said, standing in the kitchen of his house. “That’s the kind of young men they are. Incredibly gracious.”

Rich Price, uncle to victim Hisham Awartani.Caleb Kenna for The Boston Globe

When they got home from the party, Matthew declared, “Best birthday ever!” Awartani and his two friends smiled and excused themselves to take their nightly stroll, having a cigarette and a conversation in the hybrid of Arabic and English they commonly use.

They were two blocks away from the Price home when a white man with a scruffy beard walked down the porch steps of a sprawling white apartment building, pointed a handgun and shot all three of them.

“They told me the shooter didn’t say a word,” said Rich Price, who has spent most of the last three days in the room at the University of Vermont Medical Center where his nephew and two friends are being treated for gunshot wounds. “He stepped out of the dark. They used the term ‘stone cold’ to describe him.”

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Rich Price said Ali Ahmad was struck in the chest, Abdalhamid in the glute area, and both should recover with time.

The prognosis for Awartani is not as encouraging. Rich Price said the bullet that smashed through his nephew’s clavicle lodged in his spine.

“His recovery is going to be a long one,” Rich Price said.

The sudden, tragic twist ended what had been a long, languorous weekend of food and family. The three college students played board games with the five Price boys, hung out at Marian Price’s house, and sat down for a sprawling, traditional Thanksgiving dinner at Kimberly and Rich Price’s house.

There’s a family tradition of proclaiming what food they were most looking forward to, and Awartani announced it was the pumpkin pie. Another family tradition involves asking who they would most want at the table who wasn’t, and what they were most thankful for.

“All three of them said they wished their parents were at the table,” Rich Price said. “They said they were thankful for being welcomed into our homes. They were grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with each other. We just did what so many families do on Thanksgiving and the days that follow.”

Those parents are now trying to get to Vermont, to see their sons in the hospital.

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“They have been incredibly resilient,” Rich Price said of his nephew and his two friends. “They have been brave and even retained a sense of humor.”

The three have been ribbing each other about who got the worst of it. The friends keep each other’s spirits up.

“There is a rapport between all three of them that is amazing,” Kimberly Price said.

Awartani’s mother, Rich Price’s sister Elizabeth, has lived in Ramallah for 20 years, in a region where armed conflict has been a constant. He said people often ask how dangerous it is where his sister lives.

“The tragic irony of it,” Rich Price said. “They send their kids to Vermont for Thanksgiving and that’s where they get shot. There’s a level of vitriol that exists in our civic discourse, we have a sickness with gun violence, that in a way doesn’t even exist in a place like Palestine.”

Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said it is too early in the investigation to classify the shootings as a hate crime. He said the suspected shooter, Jason Eaton, had only been living in Vermont recently, and that, other than a traffic stop, has had no known involvement with law enforcement.

Rich Price said he and his family are willing to let the investigation play out, but said given the circumstances “our fear is that this crime was motivated by hate.”

He said his nephew and his friends had taken a nightly stroll each of the three days that preceded the shooting, that at least two of them were wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf, and that they spoke at least some Arabic.

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“It’s possible the shooter saw them the previous evenings and was waiting for them,” Rich Price said.

Murad said Eaton was not at home, or did not answer the door, Saturday night, when investigators first knocked on doors at the apartment building where the three friends were shot. But when an ATF agent knocked on the door in follow-up canvassing Sunday afternoon, Eaton opened the door and said, “I’ve been waiting for you,” Murad said.

When the agent asked why he was waiting for them, Eaton asked for a lawyer, Murad added.

As Rich Price spoke in the kitchen of his home, Kimberly Price stepped out to the foyer and greeted a local rabbi who came by with food and support. The minister at the Congregational church the Price family attends visited the three friends at their hospital room. US Representative Becca Balint called to offer support.

“As awful as this has been, the outpouring of support from friends and neighbors has been amazing,” Rich Price said. “The community has really rallied around us. The hospital has been fabulous.”

On Sunday night, Rich Price spoke by phone to his brother-in-law, Ali Awartani, in the West Bank.

“Thanks to God, a thousand times, my son is alive,” Ali Awartani told him.

“They are just so grateful he is alive,” Rich Price said. “So are we.”

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The Price family was watching TV Sunday night when news about the shooting came on.

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” 8-year-old Matthew said.

Rich Price looked at his son, a study of innocence, and replied, “Neither do I.”

On Monday morning, Matthew sat at the kitchen table and used a pencil and crayons to fashion a handmade get-well card for his cousin and his cousin’s two friends.

“I hope you all get better soon,” Matthew wrote.

He folded the letter over and drew a flower on the front.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.