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Families of wounded Palestinian students speak out

Hisham Awartani (left) and Kinnan Abdalhamid, as children.The Ramallah Friends School

BURLINGTON, Vt. — The parents of one of three Palestinian college students shot over the weekend said Tuesday that they are “extremely relieved” he has been released from the hospital, but that he remains fearful and in pain as he recovers from an attack authorities are investigating as a potential hate crime.

Kinnan Abdalhamid, who attends Haverford College in Pennsylvania and was spending Thanksgiving weekend in Burlington with friends, “told us that he was afraid to leave the hospital,” his parents said in a statement released by the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit. “Our child may be physically well enough to be out of the hospital, but he is still shaken from this horrific attack. We know that this tragedy will shape the rest of our lives.”

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They said they were extremely proud of their son, who ran for help after the gunman shot him and his friends at around 6:30 p.m. Saturday on a street near the University of Vermont.

“In the face of hate, he has exhibited courage and strength,” the parents said in the statement. “No child should have to endure this pain. As parents, our primary focus is our son’s health, safety, and future. Kinnan continues to be concerned for the well-being of his dear friends who remain in the hospital and are receiving critical care.”

Tahseen Ali Ahmad, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Hisham Awartani (L-R).

Authorities have charged Jason J. Eaton, 48, who lives on North Prospect Street where the shooting occurred, with three counts of attempted second-degree murder. Authorities allege that Eaton stepped off his front porch and shot the three men without saying a word.

He has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail.

Abdalhamid was shot in the glute area. The other two students injured in the attack remain hospitalized: Tahseen Ali Ahmad, who goes to Trinity College, was shot in the chest; Hisham Awartani, who attends Brown University, was shot in the spine.

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A spokesperson for Awartani’s family said Tuesday that Awartani is paralyzed from the waist down, with a bullet lodged in his T2 vertebra, and may never regain the use of his legs.

Awartani’s mother, Elizabeth Price, provided a similar prognosis in media interviews.

“He’s confronting a life of disability, a potentially irreversible change to his life and what it means for his future,” Price told NPR in an interview from her home in Ramallah on the West Bank.

Awartani also sent a message about his condition to Beshara Doumani, a professor of Palestinian studies at Brown, who read it aloud at a vigil on campus Monday night.

“I’d like to start off by saying that I greatly appreciate all the love and prayers being sent my way. Who knew that all I had to do to become famous was to get shot,” Doumani read, noting the joke was characteristic of Awartani. “On a more serious note, it’s important to recognize that this is part of the larger story. This hideous crime did not happen in a vacuum.”

“I am but one casualty in this much wider conflict,” he continued. “This is why when you send your wishes and light your candles for me today, your mind should not just be focused on me as an individual, but rather as a proud member of a people being oppressed.”

In his message, Awartani said that if he had been shot in the West Bank, instead of Vermont, “the medical services that saved my life here would likely have been withheld by the Israeli army. The soldier who shot me would go home and never be convicted. I understand that the pain is so much more real and immediate because many of you know me, but any attack like this is horrific, be it here or in Palestine.”

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The three grew up in the turmoil of the West Bank, and came to the United States to attend elite universities. All are 20 years old; two are American citizens and one is a legal US resident.

They were visiting Awartani’s relatives for the holiday weekend, far from the war raging in Gaza. Two were wearing keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian scarves, as they walked down North Prospect Street, speaking Arabic and English.

The three young men are longtime friends who attended the Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank, where they were among the brightest in their graduating class, flourishing in a range of subjects, according to a former teacher.

The 28-year-old English teacher, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Marwah, said Awartani, Ali Ahmad, and Abdalhamid are all “incredibly passionate” and care deeply about the Palestinian cause and its people.

“They are proud to be Palestinian,” she said. “Wearing keffiyehs shows that they aren’t going to be silent no matter where they are. They are Palestinians and they are going to stand with their people regardless.”

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The students were among “the most respected, loved, and hard-working students that we’ve had come out of our school,” she said. “These boys are stewards in the community,” volunteering in local villages to help residents get medical care, she said.

The community at Ramallah Friends School is deeply shaken, Marwah said.

The shooting has also shaken Burlington, where about 100 people gathered Tuesday night for a vigil at the corner of Church and Pearl streets to show their support for the three students..

“We’re grieving with and for these boys and their families — and for our sense of place,” said Pam Laser, who was holding a sign with the word “hate” crossed out by a big X.

Her friend Peggy Owen Sands, who, like Laser, said she’s lived in Burlington for decades, added, “Hate has no place here.”

The vigil was quiet, with no speaking program. At times, the only noises were the whipping, frigid winds and the squeak of people affixing styrofoam cups to candles to try to keep them lit.

Mayor Miro Weinberger said the shooter’s actions “have brought terrible attention to Burlington.”

“We want to be a place that’s welcoming,” he told the Globe at the vigil.

Weinberger said the shooting seems to confirm “the worst fears” of some in the Muslim and Arab communities, but, “the much larger response that Burlington supports them is clear.”

Police Chief Jon Murad said investigators are searching electronic devices that were seized from Eaton’s apartment and talking to people who knew him as the investigation continues into whether the shooting was a hate crime.

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He said he’s confident authorities have solid evidence that Eaton was the shooter, but he added, “We’re working hard to find a motive.”

On Tuesday, Eaton’s mother said he wasn’t raised to harbor hatred for any group of people.

“I don’t believe this was a hate crime,” Mary Q. Reed said during a brief interview on her doorstep about an hour south of Burlington, near the shore of Lake Dunmore.

“He’s not a hateful person,” Reed said.

Kevin Cullen and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her @shannonlarson98. Sean Cotter can be reached at sean.cotter@globe.com. Follow him @cotterreporter.