1 of the 3 Palestinian students shot in Vermont is paralyzed from the shooting, his mother says

ByEmma Tucker, CNN, CNNWire
Monday, December 4, 2023
Hisham Awartani, 1 of 3 Palestinian students shot in Vermont shooting, is paralyzed, his mother says
Hisham Awartani, one of the Palestinian college students shot in Vermont over Thanksgiving weekend, is paralyzed from the chest down.

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Hisham Awartani, one of the three Palestinian college students who were shot while walking in Vermont over Thanksgiving weekend, is paralyzed from the chest down after a bullet became lodged in his spine, his mother said.

Awartani's family has launched a GoFundMe fundraiser to help the 20-year-old junior at Brown University, who is scheduled to be released from the hospital next week and then go on to receive rehabilitation care, said his mother, Elizabeth Price, in a statement to CNN.

"We believe that Hisham will meet this challenge with the same determination I've witnessed this week," she said. "The fund will help cover costs associated with his rehabilitation, air travel of his family and expenses related to the adaptive needs of his new reality."

Awartani and his two longtime friends from the Israeli-occupied West Bank - Kinnan Abdalhamid of Haverford College and Tahseen Ali Ahmad of Trinity College - were out for a walk on Saturday in Burlington, chatting as they often did in English and Arabic, when they were shot, according to Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad. Two of the men were also wearing traditional Palestinian scarves known as keffiyehs at the time of the attack, he said.

In addition to Awartani's life-altering spinal injury, the two other men were shot in the upper torso and lower extremities and hospitalized in the ICU, according to police. Both of the victims have since been released from the hospital.

Abdalhamid's parents said in a statement Tuesday evening they are "extremely relieved" he was released from the hospital but "know that this tragedy will shape the rest of our lives."

"Kinnan told us that he was afraid to leave the hospital," they said. "Our child may be physically well enough to be out of the hospital, but he is still shaken from this horrific attack."

RELATED: Mother of Haverford College student shot in Vermont arrives in US to be with son

The suspect in the attack, 48-year-old Jason J. Eaton, was arrested Sunday and charged with three counts of attempted murder, to which he has pleaded not guilty. Authorities say they haven't determined a motive in the attack but have said they are investigating whether the incident was motivated by hate.

"It's been a gut-wrenching and difficult six days, but it's also been a remarkable and awe-inspiring time - first to watch Hisham and his two childhood friends meet this experience with resilience, strength and even deep concern for others," Price said Saturday. "...and second to see and feel the incredible support from all over the world, including messages of love and support from many of you."

If the full amount raised by the GoFundMe isn't needed, the money will go toward a fund to support other Palestinians who are more vulnerable and "much less fortunate than him," Price said.

"We ask that you stand in solidarity with all those who ache knowing the natural conclusion of dehumanization of any people is hateful violence," her statement reads.

Students were visiting for the holiday

The students were visiting Burlington for the Thanksgiving holiday and were staying with Awartani's uncle, Rich Price, he told CNN. They had attended a birthday party for the uncle's 8-year-old twin sons just hours before they were attacked, he said.

Awartani told his mother he "suddenly found himself on the ground" when the shooting began and recalled one of his friends "screaming with pain" from a chest wound, said Elizabeth Price. The third victim, who thought his friends had been killed, tried to escape to get help, she said.

The shooter hovered over them for a short time and Awartani thought he would "continue to shoot them and kill them," the mother said. Once the shooter fled, Awartani was able to call 911.

Elizabeth Price told CNN on Tuesday her son had an "incomplete spinal injury," meaning he can feel his legs but can't move them. Awartani's clavicle is also broken and he has a fractured thumb, she said. And because of the spinal injury, he has difficulty regulating his body temperature.

He is expected to have between one and four weeks in spinal trauma care, followed by months in physical therapy, the mother said on Tuesday.

Awartani's uncle said the three students grew up in Ramallah before coming to the US for college.

Awartani, Abdalhamid and Ahmad have been friends since grade school, Price told CNN on Monday from Ramallah. Before coming to the United States for college, they went to school together at the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker-run, private, non-profit school in the Israeli-occupied city, said the head of the school, Rania Maayeh.

All three young men wounded in Vermont were born shortly before the end of the Second Intifada, a violent popular uprising of Palestinians over Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that claimed thousands of lives.

"They grew up under military occupation and who would imagine that they would come to a place like this to celebrate Thanksgiving and this is when their lives would be at risk," said Rich Price.

Abdalhamid told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Friday he was shot in the back while running away moments after the other two students were shot. He said the incident is part of "a bigger issue regarding the hatred toward Palestinians."

He referenced 6-year-old Wadea Al Fayoume who was stabbed 26 times by his family's landlord in Plainfield Township, Illinois in October, the Will County Sheriff's Office said. Abdalhamid said what happened to him and his friends has changed them, as well as other Palestinian families.

"We have a very, very strong sense of community. And, it kind of just ripples throughout," he said. "... And that's why every Palestinian right now is in anguish for what's happening in Gaza, especially that the ceasefire has ended."

Families urge police to treat case as hate crime

A search of the suspect's apartment, which is next to the scene of the shooting, uncovered a pistol and ammunition that were connected to bullet casings found at the scene, according to Murad, the police chief.

But while investigators say they have found enough evidence to connect Eaton to the attack, they are still searching for a motive.

A trove of electronic devices seized from the Eaton's apartment may offer some insight, and police plan to work with the FBI to analyze the devices, Murad said on CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront Monday night. During their search, authorities found five cell phones, an iPad and a backpack full of hard drives, according to an affidavit.

The victims' families and several civil rights groups have called on investigators to treat the case as a hate crime, as the attack comes amid a reported rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias incidents in the United States since the war between Israel and Hamas ignited last month.

"This absolutely was a hateful act," Murad told CNN Monday. "But whether or not we can cross the legal threshold in order to determine that it is a hate crime is a different matter."

Federal prosecutors in Vermont are also investigating whether the shooting may have been a hate crime, officials said.

After Eaton's arraignment on Monday, his attorney, Margaret Jansch, said it was "premature to speculate" about a possible hate crime motivation.

Eaton showed no emotion when police told him what charges he faced, Murad said.

The victims' families called for "full justice and accountability" in a joint statement Monday.

"We believe a full investigation is likely to show our sons were targeted and violently attacked simply for being Palestinian," the families' statement said. "Our children, Palestinian children, like everyone else, deserve to feel safe."

Statement from victim read aloud during vigil

In a text from Awartani, read aloud by a Brown University professor Monday night during a vigil for the three students, the young man said: "Who knew that all I had to do to become famous was to get shot?"

Beshara Doumani, a professor of Palestinian Studies, jested that those who knew Awartani would have expected that opening line.

"On a more serious note, it's important to recognize that this is part of the larger story," said Doumani, reading from Awartani's statement.

"This hideous crime did not happen in a vacuum. I, meaning Hisham speaking, said about a month ago that Palestinians cannot afford to hold vigils every time this happens," the statement continued. "As much as I appreciate and love every single one of you here today, I am but one casualty in this much-wider conflict."

Awartani went on to allege in his statement, had he been shot in the West Bank, "the medical services which saved my life here would likely have been withheld by the Israeli army. The soldier who would've shot me would go home and never be convicted." The lines were met with boos and shouts of "shame" in agreement, from students in attendance.

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