Kinnan Abdalhamid, one of the three Palestinian college students shot in Vermont over Thanksgiving weekend, recalled Friday how he feared his friends were killed when he heard shots ringing out — and how their lives were likely saved by an emergency SOS call.
“I was shaking and genuinely believed both of my friends were dead,” Abdalhamid told NBC News.
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He recounted the shock and fear that engulfed him when he and his friends Hisham Awartani and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, all 20, were shot as they were out walking Nov. 25 in Burlington, Vermont.
Earlier that day, Abdalhamid and his friends had been bowling and were going for a walk in Awartani’s grandmother’s neighborhood when terror struck.
“We walked around the block and on the way back, across the sidewalk, we see this man standing on his porch looking away,” Abdalhamid said. “He turned around and as soon as he saw us, he ran down the steps, pulled out a pistol and started shooting.”
“He first shot my friend Tahseen, and I soon heard the sound of his body on the ground and him screaming. That was my signal to run. Then I soon heard another pistol shot while running, Hisham hit the floor,” he recalled. “I jumped the fence and I believe that’s when he shot me.”
Abdalhamid said he hid in the backyard of a house for a minute or two, shaking in fear.
A sharp pain
“My phone was out of battery and I think it fell while I was jumping the fence. After gathering the courage, (I thought) like, ‘All right, he could be after me now, or if my friends have any chance of surviving, I need to call 911 as soon as possible,’” he said.
Abdalhamid limped as he rushed to another house where he saw through the windows that people were inside.
“I knocked the glass. I was like ‘Please, come out, I need y’all to come out.’ They stared for a bit and reluctantly came,” he recounted. He explained that his friends had been shot, and the family in the home called 911 and told him to sit on a bench outside.
Once he sat, he felt a sharp pain in his backside.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, I was shot as well,’” Abdalhamid said.
Abdalhamid was shot in the glutes and was released from the hospital earlier this week. Tahseen Ali Ahmad, a student at Connecticut’s Trinity College, was shot in the chest, and Hisham Awartani, a junior at Brown University in Rhode Island, was shot in the spine.
Abdalhamid asked the family for an ice pack and said he was losing consciousness.
Police arrived quickly, and it turned out that Awartani may have saved his friends’ lives by using his phone’s emergency SOS button.
“(Police) came so fast because it turns out Hisham — while he was down — after trying to open the phone with his code, he couldn’t because there was too much blood on the phone,” Abdalhamid said.
“He was able to think of using the phone’s emergency SOS, which probably directly saved both their lives.”
Targeted for speaking Arabic?
Abdalhamid urged officers to drive him directly to the hospital, warning that he was losing consciousness, and he made it safely to the hospital.
When he was reunited with his friends at the hospital, they concluded, without question, that they were targeted for speaking Arabic.
“We were like, ‘Why do you think it happened?’ We were like, ‘Oh yeah, probably because we were speaking Arabic.’ It was an instant conclusion because we can’t think about anything else,” Abdalhamid explained.
At the time of the shooting, he and his friends had been talking about how they probably hadn’t done enough homework during their Thanksgiving break, he said.
Officials haven’t shared a motive as to why suspect Jason J. Eaton, 48, who has pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree attempted murder, opened fire. Abdalhamid told CNN earlier this week that the gunman didn’t say a word to them when he pulled out a gun.
Police noted two of victims were wearing keffiyehs, traditional Palestinian scarves, at the time of the shooting, but haven’t said if the shootings were motivated by hate.
“As soon as he was arrested, we felt a lot safer in going out because we thought it could be a genuine threat, at least on my part,” Abdalhamid said.
‘I haven’t been focusing much on myself’
The shooting sparked outrage amid ongoing tensions surrounding the Israel-Hamas war and a surge in Islamophobia in the United States reminiscent of the times after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I have heard of other Palestinians being beat up, stabbed or humiliated, but I certainly didn’t expect to be shot and there’s a difference between intellectually knowing it and first hand experiencing it or close people around you experiencing it,” he said.
Abdalhamid noted that despite growing up in the occupied West Bank, his mother wanted him to study in the U.S., thinking it would be safer.
“There should be a lot more attention to the protection of not only Palestinians, but Arabs in general,” he said. “Because I feel that the type of people (that) shoot Palestinians cannot distinguish between them and an Arab, an Arab and a Muslim or a Muslim and a terrorist.”
“It’s important to protect all groups. Everyone who follows the law should be protected no matter their identity,” he said.
Despite the trauma, Abdalhamid says, he’s focused on the strife of his people and the recovery of his friends.
“Honestly I haven’t been focusing much on myself. They just ended the humanitarian pause and I’ve been focusing on my people dying both in the West Bank and Gaza. So, that is really where my mind has been most of the time,” he said.