BURLINGTON, Vt. —The mothers of Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, the three international Palestinian students shot in Vermont, were all close friends after their sons were born 20 years ago, so it was inevitable their children would play together.
And those ties only increased over the years as the trio grew up in the West Bank, tightened by shared kindness, humor, and, in particular, razor-sharp intellects. All three are, by all accounts, exceptional students, who made their way to elite US universities.
“I think that’s why they stayed together for all these years,” said Abdalhamid’s uncle, Radi Tamimi.
Now those deep connections are helping them recover from the attack, according to interviews with Abdalhamid, family members of the three young men, mutual friends, and classmates.
“We are relying on each other,” Abdalhamid said during a telephone interview Monday. “We use humor a lot, and we’re recovering fairly fast.”
His uncle echoed those thoughts. “Their bond is really getting them through this and keeping them moving,” Tamimi said. “They’re coping through their love for each other.”
The daughter of an American international banker, Awartani’s mother, Elizabeth Price, was born in Ireland and has American and Irish citizenship. She met her husband in the West Bank while they were both in college. Several of the boys’ parents and relatives work for the United Nations Development Program in the West Bank, and the families are close.
“Every Saturday, those boys came to my house, sprawled in the living room,” Price said. “Hisham and his friends would push each other, not in a competitive way, but to encourage each other to do their best.”
And, Tamimi noted, the three ended up near each other “on this side of the world” for college: Awartani at Brown University in Rhode Island, Abdalhamid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and Ali Ahmad at Trinity College in Connecticut. They have remained close and were happy to spend Thanksgiving break together at Awartani’s relatives in Burlington, Vt.
Abdalhamid later told authorities “they spent lot of time eating, relaxing, and would smoke cigarettes, walk around the block and walk to Church Street,” Burlington’s brick-lined, pedestrian corridor of shops and restaurants. On Nov. 25, they went to a birthday party at a bowling alley for Awartani’s 8-year-old twin cousins.
Later, they were speaking a mix of Arabic and English as they walked around the block and two of them were wearing keffiyehs, Palestinian scarves, according to court filings. Then a man stepped down from a porch, pulled out a gun, and, without saying a word, fired four times, striking all three men.
Jason J. Eaton, 48, of Burlington, is charged with three counts of attempted murder. He has pleaded not guilty, and remains held without bail. Authorities said they have yet to determine a motive, but are investigating whether it was a hate crime. The victims and their families have said they believe it was.
Awartani is the most seriously injured. A bullet lodged in his spine and doctors say he may never walk again, Elizabeth Price said in an interview. A GoFundMe set up by his family had raised more than $975,000 as of early Monday evening.
A junior at Brown pursuing degrees in math and in archaeology, Awartani was taking Italian classes to better his chances to be picked for an archaeological dig in Sardinia. He reads Arabic poetry and is fond of Irish literature and music, his mother said.
Ali Ahmad was shot in the chest and also remained hospitalized on Sunday. Abdalhamid, who was shot in the right glute area, was released from the hospital last week.
On Monday, Abdalhamid said he suspects that “dehumanization” of Palestinians and the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel played a role in the shooting because he can’t think of any other reason why he and his friends were targeted.
“There’s just nothing else to go on,” he said.
However, he was reluctant to talk about the shooting and said he and his friends were more focused on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We’re not putting all of our energy into this dude,” said Abdalhamid, referring to Eaton.
Abdalhamid called the Vermont shooting “light compared to what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza.”
He said that when he was in high school, one of his friends was shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier during a protest in the West Bank.
“We’re very happy for the outcry” over the Vermont shooting, Abdalhamid said, “but we’re just as human as the people in the West Bank.”
He added, “It’s impossible to see this in a vacuum. It makes no sense to do that.”
Abdalhamid was born in the United States, but lived in the West Bank from the time he was 3 until he left for college. He said he recently received his EMT certification, is on a pre-med track at Haverford, and wants to practice medicine in the West Bank.
“I’m looking forward to improving our hospitals there,” he said.
On Friday, Ali Ahmad said he believed the three were shot “for no other reason than the fact that we are Palestinian.”
“The attacker who targeted us didn’t see us as human beings,” he said in a statement released by the Institute for Middle East Understanding. “All he saw was our keffiyehs, and violently attacked us without a word.”
He added, “No Palestinian should have to prove their humanity to the world — we are human beings who deserve to live with our full rights and dignity.”
Hate crimes against Jews and Muslims have skyrocketed in the United States since Hamas launched its attack on Israel on Oct. 7, prompting a massive military response by Israel in Gaza.
Aboud Ashhab, a friend of the trio and Awartani’s sophomore roommate at Brown, said his parents have told him not to speak Arabic in public since the Vermont shooting, and not to let people know he’s Palestinian as they fear for his safety.
“We’re all feeling in danger,” said Ashhab, referring to dozens of alumni from his high school class on the West Bank who are now studying in the United States or abroad.
Ashhab said he spoke with Awartani on the phone the day after the shooting. Awartani was tired and in tremendous pain, but the wounds to his body did not seem to have broken his spirit, Ashhab said.
“He was his full 100 percent self,” he said.
When they were roommates, Awartani decorated his dorm room with an expansive collection of national flags and often cooked homemade Palestinian and Middle Eastern dishes for his friends, Ashhab said.
Since the attack, the three students are “still showing levity and joking with each other and razzing each other through all of this,” said Abdalhamid’s uncle, Tamimi.
That way of coping — humor in the face of trauma — is familiar to a childhood friend of the three students who now attends school in Boston. The woman, who asked not to be quoted by name because she feared harassment amid tensions over the war, grew up with them in the West Bank.
“Humor is a way to coexist with it because the alternative is just very tragic,” she said.
She described all three students as “capital-G geniuses.”
The woman said she participated in Model United Nations with the three students while in high school. As part of the educational program, they traveled to the Netherlands and Jordan to learn about diplomacy.
An English teacher who taught Awartani and Abdalhamid at the Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank, and also knew Ali Ahmad, said they were among “the most respected, loved, and hardworking students that we’ve had come out of our school.”
The teacher, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Marwah, described the trio as introspective, charismatic, sarcastic, and a bit nerdy.
Two are American citizens and one is a legal US resident. All three, she said, are proud to be Palestinians.
Abdalhamid is on Haverford’s track team, running relay. His uncle said that training kicked in as Abdalhamid dashed away from the shooter and managed to run for help.
“He’s a runner, and it saved his friggin’ life,” Tamimi said.
Another former teacher, Hanan Wuhush said Ali Ahmad and Abdalhamid were both in her eighth-grade English class at the Ramallah Friends School.
“These were the students that younger students looked up to,” she said. “It’s a small school, it’s a small community. There’s so much love and care within this community.”
Wuhush, who is currently in Boston pursuing a master’s degree at Harvard University, said she believes the students were shot because they are Palestinians.
“Their identities and futures are not separate from Palestine and not separate from what’s happening in Gaza,” she said.
Daniel Kool and Maggie Scales contributed to this report.
Sean Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @cotterreporter. Shannon Larson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @shannonlarson98. Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.