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'We're with him': Mother of student paralyzed in Burlington shooting shares family's story

Hisham Awartani with his mother, Elizabeth Price, and father, Ali Awartani, on a trip to Maine.
Elizabeth Price
Hisham Awartani with his mother, Elizabeth Price, and father, Ali Awartani, on a trip to Maine.

One of the three college students shot in Burlington last month has been moved to a spinal cord rehabilitation facility in Massachusetts. Hisham Awartani is paralyzed from the chest down, his family says, and is at the beginning of a long road.

"He is currently paraplegic," his mother, Elizabeth Price, told Vermont Edition. "He has serious spinal injuries. He has a bullet in his spine that could not be removed."

Despite the grave prognosis, Price said, their family remains hopeful he will improve.

"We know that he is capable of achieving great things," she said.

Awartani was visiting family in Burlington for the Thanksgiving holiday with his two friends, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, when they were shot while on a neighborhood walk. Police have arrested and charged a suspect, Jason J. Eaton, with three counts of attempted murder. Eaton has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail.

All three of the shooting victims are 20 years old. Awartani is a citizen of the United States, Ireland and Palestine. His parents, who live in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank, flew to Vermont shortly after the shooting.

"Everyone who's a parent knows what it's like," Price said as she described being reunited with her son at UVM Medical Center. "No matter how tall they are, they are the babies that you held inside of you, or the baby that you held in your arms."

Price and her husband, Ali Awartani, plan to remain with him for the foreseeable future. Their younger son will join them soon, and their daughter will remain in Ramallah with family and friends.

A woman with glasses and a purple sweater stands next to a young man with curly brown hair, a brown jacket and a jersey with Arabic writing. Their heads touch and they both have small smiles.
Elizabeth Price
Elizabeth Price and her son, Hisham Awartani.

Price said her son's room has been "heaving" with visitors and well wishers, including many friends, professors and administrators from Brown University, where he is in his third year studying archaeology and mathematics. His two friends who were also injured in the shooting have since been released from the hospital in Burlington.

"They're trying to understand how to reintegrate into normal life," Price said of her communications with them. "We've had two months of destruction that we've watched [in Gaza]," she said, "and then on top of that, they have to deal with the fact that, out of nowhere, someone came and hurt them, and hurt their friends."

Despite the trauma the young men experienced in Burlington, Price said they and their families remain deeply grateful to the many Vermonters who have supported them.

"Our roots are deeper now," she said.

She shared stories of churchgoers in Charlotte who provided spiritual comfort and a local Palestinian woman who made home-cooked food for their families and delivered it to the hospital. Hotel Vermont donated hotel rooms for the families, and all three members of Vermont's congressional delegation reached out. The staff at UVM Medical Center did "whatever they could to protect the boys," she said.

Donors from across the state, country and the world have donated more than $1.5 million to a GoFundMe for Awartani's medical care, as well as the future, ongoing costs of rehabilitation and adaptive living. If his condition improves and the money is no longer needed, Price said, they plan to donate the rest of the funds to support others with spinal cord injuries.

A number of people and organizations have helped their family come to terms with the extent of Awartani's injuries and the potential future costs. Kelly Brush, who founded the Kelly Brush Foundation after sustaining a spinal cord injury while skiing, visited the hospital and spent time with Awartani and his family.

"Seeing her helped me process and prepare," Price said. "She was amazing."

"There's an expression in Arabic called sumud, which is to be steadfast, like an olive tree."
Elizabeth Price, mother of Hisham Awartani

While the future holds many unknowns for Awartani, he remains the same resilient, studious and resolute person he's always been, his mother said. He hopes to return to his studies at Brown as quickly as possible.

"There's an expression in Arabic called sumud, which is to be steadfast," she said, "like an olive tree."

Before heading back to her son's room at the rehabilitation facility, Price shared one last thank you to Vermonters.

"I know I speak for the other families as well," she said, "because they're very grateful and buoyed up by the love that we're receiving — the Vermont love, the Green Mountain love."

Broadcast at noon Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.