Families arrive from the West Bank to care for the 3 college students shot in Vermont

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Nearly a week after three college students of Palestinian descent were shot and seriously wounded while taking an evening walk, relatives of two of the victims have arrived in Vermont from the war-torn West Bank, grappling with a new reality that has shattered their lives and a place they thought was a safe haven.

Elizabeth Price and her husband Ali Awartani flew in Wednesday just as their son, Hisham Awartani, underwent surgery. After the Israel-Hamas war erupted in early October, they agreed it would be safer for Hisham to stay in the United States instead of coming home for the holidays.

Now they don’t know if he will ever walk again.

“When my nephew came to this country to pursue his studies and when he came to stay with me for Thanksgiving in Burlington, Vermont, it never occurred to me that he may be victim to this type of violence,” Awartani’s uncle Rich Price said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday. “And so I feel a sense of shame, I feel a sense of outrage, and it’s been a really difficult awakening to the fact that even here — even in this country, even in this town — that many of the risks that exist for my nephew and his friends in Palestine exist for them here.”

Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, all age 20 and attending colleges in the eastern U.S., were visiting Price and his family for the holiday break. The three have been friends since first grade at Ramallah Friends School, a private school in the West Bank. While they were out for a walk Saturday evening after a family birthday party, a man approached them and shot them without saying a word, they told police.

The young men 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, Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said.

Abdalhamid, who ran when the man pulled out the pistol, said he thought the gunman was shooting at him as he fled. After running across the street and jumping a fence, he begged a woman at a nearby residence to call 911, according to a police affidavit. He then sat down, realized he was in pain and saw blood.

Abdalhamid’s mother, like Awartani’s, arrived in Vermont from the West Bank on Wednesday. When he was released from the hospital earlier this week, his family said in a written statement that he was scared to leave.

Carmen Abdelhadi, the middle school librarian at the Ramallah Friends School, remembers meeting the three as fourth graders. When she heard about the shooting, she and others in their community were shocked and “outraged” because “we know them.”

“Whenever I read something about them, I cry. It could have happened to any of our sons. My son is wearing the same scarf,” she said. “It’s devastating. It’s devastating on top of everything that we are going through.”

Awartani, she recalled, could always be found with a book while Abdalhamid “didn’t have a bad bone” in his body and was loved by everyone, she said. And Ahmad, she said, was the sensible one who found a love of poetry early on and went on to show an aptitude in science and tech.

“I see my son in every one of them,” Abdelhadi said.

Awartani suffered a spinal injury in the shooting. A bullet that is still lodged in his spine is unlikely to be removed and he is currently paralyzed from the chest down, Rich Price said. “We don’t know what the long-term prognosis is,” he said.

Still, Awartani’s uncle said he has the will and resilience for the recovery.

“He was concerned for his friends, who were with him, their well-being and recovery. And he was also deeply concerned that so much attention was being brought to him and he’s thinking about the thousands of people that are dead, the now 80 percent of Gazans who have been displaced from their homes,” Price said, wearing a keffiyeh in solidarity with the three young men. “There are dozens of Hishams that are in the list of the dead in Gaza, and he’s saying, ‘I’m the Hisham that you know. What about the Hishams you don’t know?’”

The shooting last weekend came as threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities have increased across the U.S. in the weeks since the war began.

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. Eaton has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder and is currently being held without bail.

Authorities are investigating the shooting as a possible a hate crime.

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