A ‘living nightmare’: After Vermont shooting, Haverford student speaks to fear among Palestinians

Last weekend, three young students of Palestinian descent were shot near the University of Vermont. Their trauma is felt across the Philly region.

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Left to right: Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed

Left to right: Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed are being identified by multiple organizations as college students of Palestinian descent who were shot in Burlington on Saturday night. (Courtesy of Council On American-Islamic Relations)

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Nearly one week after Palestinian American Kinnan Abdalhamid and two friends were shot in Vermont, the Haverford College junior recounted his experience as a “living nightmare.”

Seated beside his mother on Thursday evening, the 20-year-old pre-med student recalled walking through quiet Burlington streets with his friends, speaking a mixture of English and Arabic.

”We call it Arab-ish,” he quipped, a black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarf draped around his neck.

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That’s when a man they’d never met wordlessly descended from his porch and shot them. Two of the victims had been wearing keffiyehs.

Abdalhamid and his longtime friends, Tahseen Ahmed and Hisham Awartani, survived the unprovoked attack, but they each sustained severe injuries. Awartani was hit in the spine, and may never walk again.

Even if Abdalhamid fully recovers from the gunshot wound in his lower body, the emotional toll may linger. “I still have this underlying fear because of the experience,” Abdalhamid said. The sound of knocking at the door is enough to startle him.

A version of this trauma has rippled out to Philadelphians of Palestinian descent and across the country.

Arab and Jewish communities in the United States have experienced rising hatred and violence since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 200 others hostage. Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza has since killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry.

Authorities are investigating Saturday’s shooting as a potential hate crime. Suspect Jason Eaton, a 48-year-old white man, pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder.

Abdalhamid, Ahmed, and Awartani each attended the Ramallah Friends School, a private institution with Quaker roots that sticks out as a well-funded school in the resource-choked West Bank. Swarthmore College Professor Sa’ed Atshan, a 2002 graduate of the school, advised Abdalhamid and Awartani as they applied to college in the U.S.

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“It’s really shocking that this could happen in Burlington, Vermont,” said Atshan. The state has a progressive reputation, from its politicians to its ice cream companies.  

“It reflects the extent to which the dehumanization of Palestinians and racism against Palestinians has become entrenched in the United States,” he said.

Tala Qaraqe, a close friend of Kinnan at Haverford who also grew up in the West Bank, said she still wears a keffiyeh despite her visceral fear of being targeted.

“If we keep just giving up on our identities … We’re just gonna have nothing left,” she told her mother over the phone, arguing about whether she should remove her keffiyeh for safety on the SEPTA ride home.

Abdalhamid was Qaraqe’s cultural anchor as she adjusted to college life in Pennsylvania. Abdalhamid helped her with biology homework, turned casual conversations into philosophical debates, and held space for Palestinian voices on campus.

“I’m really honored to be his friend,” Qaraqe said.

Mentors say Abdalhamid is a brilliant mind and a star athlete on the track team. He’s also a registered EMT. Haverford Professor Rob Fairman described Abdalhamid as a gifted pre-med student.

His passion for “helping people in moments of medical crisis is rooted in what he experienced as a child in Palestine,” said Fairman, referencing the substandard care Abdalhamid said he experienced while growing up in the West Bank.

Since the attack, statements by the victims and their families have expressed relief at the suspect’s arrest and gratitude for the support they’ve received.

Still, the students and their communities are irrevocably shaken.

“We thought that he would be safer here [in the United States],” Abdalhamid’s mother Tamara Tamimi said. “At this point in time, I feel like no Palestinian is safe anywhere.”

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