Hisham Awartani, Tahseen Ali Ahmad, and Kinnan Adbalhamid, all 20, were in the city of Burlington to celebrate Thanksgiving with Awartani’s grandmother who resides there.
The friends were walking around the neighbourhood they were staying in on 25 November when they were attacked by 48-year-old Jason Eaton. They were wearing the keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, and were speaking English and Arabic when they were shot.
Prosecutors say Mr Eaton shot at the three college students and charged him with three counts of second-degree attempted murder. He’s pleaded not guilty to the charges. It remains unclear what caused him to fire the weapon.
As the shooting unfolded, the men said they didn’t immediately realise what had happened.
“I didn’t quite process the fact until I, like, looked at my phone and I saw my phone had blood on it,” Mr Awartani told NBC News. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been shot.”
Mr Adbalhamid agreed. “Tahseen was screaming. He was shot first,” he said. “Hisham didn’t make a sound. As soon as Tahseen started screaming, I was running.”
Both Mr Awartani and Mr Adbalhamid believe Mr Eaton may have noticed them the day before and waited to spot them again to launch the attack. They’re certain that what happened to them was a hate crime.
“I don’t know why he’d have a loaded pistol and stand on the porch,” Mr Adbalhamid said. Even though Mr Eaton has not been charged with a hate crime, Mr Awartani said he’s not too focused on the technicalities.
“I don’t think too much about if there’s gonna be hate crime charges,” he said. “I just care that, like, justice is served. And to me, that is a part of it. But I know that this is a hate crime.”
He said he expected something like what happened to him to have happened in the West Bank, where his parents live, but not in Vermont.
“It’s not odd because it happened, full stop,” he said, adding that he’s comforted by his ability to receive the necessary care he needs to navigate this new chapter in his life. One of the bullets that hit the student is lodged near his spine and has left him paralysed from the chest down.
“I’m able to receive physical therapy, and I’m able to, you know, go to a good hospital,” he said. “When, like, it makes me think of other people in Gaza who are in wheelchairs and who, you know, have been disabled by bombings.”
The idea of someone being seriously injured just by walking in the street has become normalised to him. “So many unarmed young men getting shot by the Israeli army, and they’re just left to bleed out,” he said.
“Therefore, when it happened to me, it was like, ‘Oh, this is where it happens. This is it.’”
He’s receiving treatment at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he’s learning to adapt to life in a wheelchair. He was the only one in the group to be left paralysed from the attack.
The students say what happened to them is part of a larger issue of how Palestinians are demonised in Western discourse.
“The Palestinian is assumed by default to be a terrorist,” Mr Adbalhamid said. “And when he saw us, it was like — he just connected the dots.”