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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Middlebury community responds to shooting of three Palestinian students in Burlington

Tahseen Ali Ahmad and Kinnan Abdalhamid went to visit their close childhood friend Hisham Awartani’s family in Burlington, Vt. over Thanksgiving break from college. All three men were shot while walking down the street on Nov. 25 while two of them were wearing keffiyehs, patterned scarves that symbolize Palestinian identity, and all three were speaking a mix of English and Arabic at the time they were shot, according to Seven Days. They all survived, but Awartani is currently paralyzed from the chest down. 

The shooting has prompted response across Vermont and around the country as a potential hate crime. 

"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 reported by Vermont Public. Authorities have not yet determined whether the shooting can officially be charged as a hate crime, but Murad added that “there is no question it was a hateful act.”

Jason J. Eaton, the suspected shooter, was taken into custody early in the morning on Nov. 27. Eaton pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree attempted murder, according to Seven Days

Eaton allegedly approached them, began yelling and shot a handgun at least four times. 

Abdalhamid was shot in the gluteal muscle, Ali Ahmad was shot in the upper chest and Awartani was shot in his spine, according to court documents.

Awartani is a student at Brown University, Abdalhamid attends Haverford College and Ahmad is a student at Trinity College. The three men attended the Ramallah Friends School — a Quaker school in the West Bank — according to Seven Days

In a statement posted to Instagram by Brown’s Students for Justice in Palestine on Nov. 28, Awartani emphasized that the violence was part of the larger context of the conflict in the region. 

“Had I been shot in the West Bank, where I grew up, the medical services that saved my life here would likely have been withheld by the Israeli army. The soldier who shot me would go home and never be convicted,” Awartani wrote. “This is why when you say your wishes and light your candles today, your mind should not just be focused on me as an individual, but rather as a proud member of a people being oppressed.”

Middlebury College sent an email to the community on Nov. 27 expressing its support for students and its commitment against hateful violence on campus. 

“Our community will continue to remain actively watchful for incidents in Middlebury,” the email read. “It can never be said adequately, and it can never be said enough: There is no place for discrimination of any kind on our campus. There is no place for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian bias or discrimination on the basis of national origin.” 

The email also encouraged students, faculty and staff to continue to care for one another throughout the semester. 

Middlebury’s Students for Justice in Palestine and Muslim Students Association released a joint statement on Instagram in response to the shootings on Dec. 2. 

“Sunday’s shooting has severely damaged our ability to feel safe — a basic necessity that has been eroded constantly in the past as well,” the groups wrote. “We are calling on all readers knowing that countless students and alumni share our sentiments — to work to make Middlebury safe for everyone.” 

Zahra Moeini Meybodi, the college’s Muslim chaplain and interfaith advisor, wrote in an email to The Campus that she appreciates the spaces created by administrators, faculty and students to stand against Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian discrimination at the college, but encouraged the development of long-term initiatives as well. 

“We are a school that invests heavily in foreign language training, international policy, religious studies and social justice,” Moeini wrote. “I feel that investing in diversifying our departments to include Islamic Studies and Palestinian Studies programs or, at the very least, coursework taught by individuals from said regions and religions can be one crucial step forward in educating ourselves about perspectives and communities that are often marginalized and dehumanized in moments of crisis.” 

Moeini urged the inclusion of courses about Muslim American history, as well as services to assess the effects of discrimination on American Muslims’ mental health. These changes, she said, would be instrumental to allowing American Muslim students to feel more heard and seen. 

Kaveh Abu Khaleel ’26, an international student of Palestinian descent, stated that the shooting shattered any pre-existing illusions of Vermont as a safe haven from gun violence and racist hate crimes.  

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“I'm afraid to wear my keffiyeh outside of the Middlebury campus, and do not feel safe going to Burlington,” they wrote in a message to The Campus. 

“We need to be protected on the most basic levels,” Abu Khaleel added, going on to describe an incident last month that they described as threatening their safety on campus.

“Just last month, I was doxxed by a Middlebury parent who posted my personal information and location on the Middlebury Parents Facebook group (with thousands of members). The administration and public safety has not given my case the urgency it needs, they haven’t given me any measures of protection going forward either,” they wrote. 

West Asian and North African Students, an organization of which Abu Khaleel is co-president, has organized community dinners and affinity spaces to offer the community safe spaces to grieve. However, Abu Khaleel said that it is a burden to feel like the sole source of emotional support, and encouraged other Middlebury students to express their solidarity with Palestine. 

“Wear keffiyehs, advocate for Palestinians as we do not have the privilege nor security of advocating for ourselves,” they said. 

The shooting has also garnered attention across the state of Vermont. Since the shooting, numerous vigils, sit-ins and rallies have happened in Burlington, Vt., organized by local residents as well as University of Vermont students such as the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

One such event, organized by former Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist, took place last Sunday night. About 70 people attended, including Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and the Chief of Police Murad. The crowd, which was a mix of Burlington residents and others who had traveled from other parts of Vermont, thought and meditated together in silence, according to Hallquist. 

Despite her involvement in state politics, Hallquist emphasized that she organized the event as a citizen of Vermont. 

“We can’t look to leadership to solve this problem. This is about our values. I fear the danger and violence in this country. We all have to tone down our rhetoric and be kinder to each other,” she said. 

In a statement made at a Nov. 28 press conference, Mayor Weinberger said, “The terrible, unprovoked attack of three young visitors to Burlington was a shocking violation of the values of this welcoming and inclusive community. These bright, caring young men are good friends to each other, committed to their families, and are loved and valued by many. They deserved to enjoy a peaceful and joyful visit to our city, not the irreparable violence they endured.” 

On Nov. 26, Governor Phil Scott made a statement offering the full support of the State of Vermont to Mayor Weinberger and Police Chief Murad, and said federal partners were ready to assist. 

“I urge Vermonters to not let this incident incite more hate or divisiveness,” Scott’s statement read. “We must come together in these difficult times — it is the only way to put a stop to the violence we’re seeing.” 

In a written statement from the White House, President Biden condemned the shooting and offered any additional federal resources needed to aid in the investigation. 

“While we are waiting for more facts, we know this: there is absolutely no place for violence or hate in America. Period. No person should worry about being shot at while going about their daily lives. And far too many Americans know a family member injured or killed as a result of gun violence. We cannot and we will not accept that.” 

Julia Pepper

Julia Pepper '24 (she/her) is the Senior Local Editor. 

She previously served as a Local Editor. She is a Psychology major and French minor. This past spring she studied in Paris. She spent the summer interning at home in New York City, putting her journalistic cold calling skills to use at her internship doing outreach with senior citizens. In her free time she enjoys reading and petting cats.