Families of Palestinians shot in Vermont thought they’d be safer in US

In a still frame from video law enforcement officers investigate the scene of a shooting, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (Wayne Savage via AP)
In a still frame from video law enforcement officers investigate the scene of a shooting, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (Wayne Savage via AP)

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) -- Far away from the war in Gaza, three Palestinian college students were enjoying their Thanksgiving break in Vermont, celebrating not just the holiday, but a pair of family birthdays.

"If you're in college, who wants to go to an 8-year-old's birthday party? But these three guys did," said Rich Price, who hosted his nephew and two friends for the long weekend.

Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, all age 20, were out for a walk Saturday after the party for Price's twin sons when a man approached them. Shooting them without saying a word, he left them seriously injured and shattered their families' sense they would be safer in the U.S. than in the war-torn region where they grew up.

Price, Awartani's uncle, said people often ask him if he's worried about his sister and her family in the occupied West Bank.

"And the reality is, as difficult as their life is, they are surrounded by an incredible sense of community," Price said. "And tragic irony is not even the right phrase, but to have them come stay with me for Thanksgiving and have something like this happen speaks to the level of civic vitriol, speaks to the level of hatred that exists in some corners of this country. It speaks to a sickness of gun violence that exists in this country."

Elizabeth Price, Awartani's mother, said she and her husband decided after the Israel-Hamas war began in October that their son should stay in the U.S. rather than return home for the holidays. Now her son is unlikely to ever walk again, she said.

"My husband is so bitter," Elizabeth Price told NPR on Monday. "He thought my son would be safe in Burlington."

One of the students has been released from the hospital, according to media reports, while one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury.

Keeping her son safe as a Palestinian American is something Price has grappled with since his birth in San Francisco in 2003. In an audio essay recorded that year for PRX, she described a trip to the occupied West Bank with 6-week-old Hisham, who was not allowed to return home without permission from the Israeli army.

"My son's dual nationality will be a primer in freedom and its loss," she wrote. "Although I may not be able to protect my son from the worst of the world, at least I know that it will be through his suffering as a Palestinian that he will understand the true value of his freedom as an American."

Awartani and the two other shooting victims had been friends since first grade at Ramallah Friends School, a private school in the West Bank. Rania Ma'ayeh, who leads the school, called them "remarkable, distinguished students."

Awartani is studying mathematics and archaeology at Brown University; Abdalhamid is a pre-med student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania; and Ali Ahmad is studying mathematics and IT at Trinity College in Connecticut. Awartani and Abdalhamid are U.S. citizens, while Ali Ahmad is studying on a student visa, Ma'ayeh said.

"They are all just very, very close friends," said Abdalhamid's uncle, Radi Tamimi, at a news conference Monday in Burlington. His nephew grew up in the West Bank and "we always thought that that could be more of a risk in terms of his safety and sending him here would be a right decision."

"We feel somehow betrayed in that decision here and we're just trying to come to terms with everything," he said.

The suspected gunman, Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested Sunday at his apartment, where he answered the door with his hands raised and told federal agents he had been waiting for them. Not guilty pleas were entered on his behalf Monday and he was held without bail on three counts of attempted murder.

Eaton had recently lost his job. He'd worked for less than a year for California-based CUSO Financial and his employment ended on Nov. 8, said Jeff Eller, company spokesperson. "We are horrified by the shooting and are cooperating with law enforcement as they investigate," he said in a statement.

Eaton moved to Burlington over the summer from Syracuse, New York, and legally purchased the gun used in the shooting, Murad told reporters. According to a police affidavit, federal agents found the gun Sunday in Eaton's apartment.

The U.S. Department of Justice, along with Vermont authorities, are still investigating whether the shooting on a residential street close to the University of Vermont was a hate crime. The victims were speaking in a mix of English and Arabic and two of them were also wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves when they were shot, Police Chief Jon Murad said.

Threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities have increased across the U.S. since the Israel-Hamas war began.

At a vigil Monday night at Brown University, a professor read a statement from Awartani in which he expressed appreciation for the community's love and support but said, "I am but one casualty in a much wider conflict."

"Had I been shot in the West Bank, where I grew up, the medical services which saved my life here would have likely been withheld by the Israeli army. The soldier who would have shot me would go home and never be convicted," he said, according to NBC News.

Demonstrations have been widespread and tensions in the U.S. have escalated as the death toll rises in the Israel-Hamas war.

Burlington, Vermont's largest city with a population of more than 44,000, has grappled with a rise in gun violence. A couple of shootings annually jumped to 26 last year, Murad said. Saturday's shooting brings the city to about 15 so far this year, he said.

A county gun violence task force -- comprised of local, state and federal partners, including the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- was created more than a year ago to respond to the unprecedented spike in gun violence and "played a critical role in the events leading to the arrest" of Eaton, Mayor Miro Weinberger said.

photo In a still frame from video first responders tend to an injured man, behind, at the scene of a shooting, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (Wayne Savage via AP)
photo In a still frame from video first responders use a gurney to remove an injured man from the scene of a shooting, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (Wayne Savage via AP)
photo In a still frame from video first responders use a gurney to place an injured man into an ambulance while transporting him from the scene of a shooting, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Burlington, Vt. Burlington Police Department arrested Jason J. Eaton, suspected in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent, who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. (Wayne Savage via AP)
photo This image provided by the Burlington Police Department shows Jason J. Eaton. Police have arrested the suspect in the shooting of three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering near the University of Vermont campus Saturday evening. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrested Eaton while conducting a search of the shooting area in Burlington on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023 the Burlington Police Department said in a statement. (Burlington Police Department via AP)
photo FILE - A sign on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., is pictured on March 11, 2020. Police say three young men of Palestinian descent who were attending a Thanksgiving holiday gathering were shot and injured near the University of Vermont campus. Police are searching for the suspect after the three were shot late Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Burlington. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
photo Rabbi Amita Jarmon of the Brattleboro, Vt., Area Jewish Community talks against hate speech during a vigil in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. The three students were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)
photo Kate Casa, of Brattleboro, Vt., talks with Rabbi Amita Jarmon of the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community after a vigil in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. The three students were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)
photo Samia Abbass, a Palestinian-American living in Brattleboro, Vt., addresses the crowd during a vigil in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. The three students were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)
photo People gather in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Vt., for a vigil, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. The three students were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)