Last month, police in Burlington, Vermont, arrested a man suspected of shooting three college students of Palestinian descent, an incident that is being investigated as a potential hate crime. According to the New York Times, the suspect, a white man, shot and wounded the victims while they were walking to dinner near the University of Vermont on Saturday, November 25. Two of the students were wearing traditional Palestinian keffiyehs at the time of the shooting, and they reportedly told relatives they had been speaking English and Arabic when the suspect wordlessly shot at them four times before fleeing the scene on foot. Now, the family members of one of the victims, 20-year-old Brown University student Hisham Awartani, say he has been paralyzed as a result of the shooting.
“We are thankful that all three will survive this attack, and Hisham’s friends are expected to make a full recovery,” Awartani’s family wrote in a verified GoFundMe for his medical expenses. “For Hisham, however, one of the bullets that struck him is lodged in his spine and has left him paralyzed from the chest down.”
“In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime,” Burlington police chief Jon Murad said in a statement following the attacks.
The suspect, whom authorities identified as 48-year-old Jason J. Eaton, is being held without bail and pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder in the second degree. The other two victims were identified by their families as Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College, and Trinity College student Tahseen Ahmed; like Awartani, they are 20 years old. The three victims, two of whom are U.S. citizens, were friends who graduated from the Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank, according to a Facebook post from the Quaker institution.
A relative of Awartani told the Times that the trio had been walking to Awartani’s grandmother’s house for dinner at the time of the shooting, sending a photo of themselves to Awartani’s parents minutes prior. According to the students’ families, Ahmed was shot in the chest and Abdalhamid sustained minor injuries, while a bullet that struck Awartani touched his spinal cord, prompting him to lose feeling in the lower part of his body. A representative from Brown said he is expected to survive his injuries. According to Awartani’s GoFundMe page, his parents recommended he not return home to the West Bank for winter break, suggesting that he’d be safer with his grandmother in Vermont, where he’d spent holidays past. “It breaks our hearts that these young men did not find safety in his home away from home,” Awartani’s family wrote, calling the shootings a “cruelly ironic twist.”
Burlington authorities conducted a search of Eaton’s residence and said they have found “no additional information” about his potential motive, other than the fact that the students were of Palestinian descent and had been wearing keffiyehs. The Times reports that all three victims’ families have urged authorities to investigate the incident as a hate crime, while the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee called the incident a “targeted” shooting.
Both the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Anti-Defamation League have reported upticks in Islamophobia and antisemitic bias and violence, including the fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in a suburb near Chicago, since October 7. In early November, the federal government opened discrimination investigations at six universities, including Columbia and Cornell, over complaints of antisemitic and anti-Muslim harassment.
Speaking from Ramallah in the West Bank, Awartani’s mother, Elizabeth Price, told NBC News after the attacks that her son’s “short-term shock” is “evolving into something more complex as he tries to frame who he is in the world and what it means to be safe in America, particularly when you get shot down the street from your granny’s house … a street he’s basically grown up on.”
This article has been updated.