They grew up in the turmoil of the West Bank, lifelong friends bound by a shared intellect, ambition, and devotion to the Palestinian cause. They attended the Ramallah Friends School together, where they became leaders who excelled academically, propelled by talent and purpose to elite American universities.
On Saturday, the three 20-year-olds were together again in Burlington, Vt., taking a break from their studies to reunite over Thanksgiving weekend. As they walked down a residential street near the University of Vermont, seemingly a world away from the conflict between Israel and Hamas, they chatted in a mix of Arabic and English, two wearing scarves in the Palestinian tradition.
“They are proud to be Palestinian,” a former teacher of the students said this week. “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.”
The 28-year-old English teacher, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Marwah, taught Hisham Awartani and Kinnan Abdalhamid their senior year and also knows Tahseen Ali Ahmad, the three students who were wounded over the weekend when a gunman opened fire on them without saying a word, according to police.
The students were among “the most respected, loved, and hardworking students that we’ve had come out of our school,” she said. “These boys are stewards in the community,” she said, noting how Abdalhamid volunteered in local villages to help residents get medical care.
The juniors were in Burlington to visit Awartani’s relatives over the holiday. Jason J. Eaton, 48, of Burlington, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted second-degree murder. Investigators are trying to determine whether the attack, which happened outside Eaton’s apartment, was a hate crime.
Awartani, who attends Brown University, was shot in the spine. With a bullet lodged in his T2 vertebra, he may never regain the use of his legs, his family said Tuesday. Ali Ahmad, who goes to Trinity College, was shot in the chest. Abdalhamid, who studies at Haverford College, was shot in the glute area.
The community at Ramallah Friends School is deeply shaken, Marwah said.
The three friends were among the brightest in their graduating class, flourishing in a range of subjects, she said. All are “incredibly passionate” and care deeply about the Palestinian cause and its people.
While two of the friends are American citizens and the third is a legal resident, they all grew up on the West Bank — “it’s their home,” she said. After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, the college juniors watched from abroad as Israel launched retaliatory assaults, killing thousands of civilians.
“They’re constantly up to date,” Marwah said. “They’re deeply troubled.”
As tensions on campuses mounted, they remained steadfast in advocating for Palestinians. About a week after the war between Israel and Hamas began, Abdalhamid took issue with a response to the conflict from Haverford President Wendy Raymond, and Awartani delivered a passionate speech at a vigil held by students at Brown, according to reports from their respective student papers.
After Raymond issued a statement mourning the Israeli citizens “murdered or kidnapped by Hamas,” Abdalhamid told The Clerk that he was dismayed by the lack of acknowledgment of the Palestinian lives lost.
Abdalhamid was born in Illinois and “lived under Israeli military occupation” in the West Bank from age 3 until he began college, Haverford’s student paper reported.
“I don’t expect much from Western media or the college to mention much about Israel’s oppression and apartheid,” he said. “But I at least expect the thousands who were killed to be mentioned and mourned.”
At the Oct. 12 vigil hosted by Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, Awartani said that “if Palestinians had to hold vigils every time our people were massacred, we would be bankrupt from buying candles,” the Brown Daily Herald reported. “There is no respite for us.”
“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 that 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. “Any attack like this is horrific, be it here or in Palestine. 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.”
Marwah said she believes the shooting will have a lasting effect on Palestinians who are considering attending college in America. While young people have long heard stories about discrimination Palestinians face on American campuses and elsewhere, the cold-blooded shooting has left many in the community “shocked and horrified,” she said.
“Our students’ parents are using all their resources to provide their children with the best education possible,” Marwah said. “They go to the United States so that they can get the best possible education and they fought hard to get that education. So to have them be shot and to have the rhetoric in the media not name this for what it is — it’s deeply troubling in our community. Because we see it exactly for what it is.”
Her students have expressed hopeful curiosity about how the American justice system will deal with the attack but “they also understand the reality [of] how Muslims are viewed and how they’re treated,” she said.
Ali Ahmad, Abdalhamid, and Awartani share a deep camaraderie, Marwah said. They are introspective, charismatic, sarcastic, and a bit nerdy, she said. It was only a few years ago that they were coming to her with their questions about homework and tests, with their anxieties and dreams.
To Marwah, they are still “just young boys.”
“These kids have bright futures,” she said. “I just don’t want them to be remembered by this incident.”