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Pod Corner: 'Notes From America' witnesses Hisham Awartani's return to campus life

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In November of last year, three college students were shot while visiting family in Burlington, Vt. All three men - Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad - are of Palestinian descent. And at the time of the attack, two of them were wearing the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh, a black-and-white scarf that's long been a marker of Palestinian identity. No hate crime charges have been filed against the suspected shooter, but for many Arab Americans, the attack was a reminder of anti-Palestinian sentiment in the U.S., and the men became symbols of Palestinian oppression and resistance closer to home. They were all hospitalized following the shooting. Kinnan and Tahseen made full physical recoveries and returning to school, while Hisham received longer-term treatment for injuries that have left him paralyzed below the abdomen. A new series from WNYC's Notes From America With Kai Wright follows Hisham's journey as he recovers from his injuries and restarts classes at Brown University. Here's host Kai Wright.

KAI WRIGHT, BYLINE: Hisham and his friends are unfortunately just three people on a list of Palestinians who have been attacked on U.S. soil since the war broke out. Just a few weeks ago, a Palestinian American man was stabbed in Austin, Texas, while also wearing the traditional Palestinian scarf. And in the fall of 2023, just a week after Hamas's October 7 attack in Israel, a 6-year-old named Wadea al-Fayoume was killed near Chicago when his landlord broke into his family's home and stabbed Wadea and his mother. The attacker allegedly yelled anti-Palestinian rhetoric!.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Tonight, a gunman remains at large following the shooting of three college students in Burlington, Vt., all of them of Palestinian descent.

WRIGHT: The night of that shooting, Hisham and his friends were out on a walk after a long day of just hanging out.

HISHAM AWARTANI: We were walking along the sidewalk, and a guy comes down from the balcony and, like, pulls out a gun. And before I know what's happening, it's like I'm on the floor. I mean, I heard the gunshots, and I quite - didn't quite understand it. But I didn't know that I had been hit until, like, I saw blood on my phone.

WRIGHT: And even with all the blood, it took a moment for the extent of that to sink in.

SUZANNE GABER, BYLINE: When do you realize that you're also fairly injured?

AWARTANI: When the EMT people come. Like, they tell me to move my legs, and I realized that I couldn't.

GABER: What went through your mind when that happened?

AWARTANI: I didn't know what to think. I just didn't know why I couldn't.

WRIGHT: Our producer, Suzanne Gaber, has been spending time with Hisham. She was with him on his last day of inpatient therapy as he checked out of rehab and prepared to return to campus at Brown University and face a new reality as a reluctant symbol. Suzanne takes the story from here.

GABER: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

GABER: I was just checking in to see Hisham Awartani.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Sixth floor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Suzanne?

GABER: Hi. Yeah.

For months, I had seen Hisham on TV. I'd seen how composed he and his friends were in the face of such a terrible trauma. And like a lot of us, I had created an image in my head of the person he might be. But when I walked in, I realized this was just a college kid, fascinated by history and excited to learn.

AWARTANI: The Museum of Fine Arts, yeah, they participated in an excavation, like, 1908.

I mean, I've always loved history. And archaeology, I feel like, is not a more objective take on history, but it's just another way of looking at things. You know, in history, you often get lost in the big picture of, like, you know, King X declares war and whatever or, like, larger political systems, whereas in archaeology, it's just - it's more personal. It gives you a better idea of how people lived their lives.

GABER: But instead of being in class, Hisham was in rehab. And for his last day, he has to use a machine called a Lokomat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Probably we'll go, like, 25 minutes.

GABER: He's standing upright, being held up by a machine that pushes his body to move as though he's walking all on his own. And it really looks like he's walking. Hisham even moves his torso to mimic his normal walking motions. As he walks, Hisham is facing a full-length mirror, watching himself move. It was his favorite activity in rehab, and you can see it in the way that he looks at himself, walking in place, even while trying to focus on his new life in a wheelchair.

AWARTANI: I've gotten used to life like this or I'm trying to get used to life like this and what happens will happen.

GABER: I've been following Hisham's story for a while. From his very first statement, just days after the attack, Hisham and his mom have used their newfound platform to advocate for a focus on Palestinians in Gaza. It was a decision they came to very quickly, in part because Hisham has been able to process his own injuries at a speed that seems surprising for someone so young.

AWARTANI: It's all not necessarily, like, OK - it's, I guess, one, just growing up in the West Bank and growing up under occupation and just growing up a Palestinian in general, it's like you learn fairly quickly that life is absurd and you'll get screwed over and, you know, you just have to suck it up and, like, keep moving forward. But also, at the same time, I mean, like, in relation to that, it's like - it kind of feels unfair for me to, like, sit around and feel bad about myself and much worse things are happening to other people. And I honestly, yeah, like, it kind of feels like what I'm going through is, like, not that big of a deal.

GABER: I can imagine, even before this happened, that this was like a very intense moment and an inflection point of feeling a lot of grief for other people. But I wonder, like, have you then had space to process this and, like, feel what comes with...

AWARTANI: Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I've been trying to. But again, like, still not over it.

GABER: Yeah, that's true. You're still pretty early.

AWARTANI: And also, like, in Gaza, it's not over. Like, I'm getting treatment. But, like, if the same thing had happened to me there, I'd be, like, probably be carried around on a stretcher.

GABER: Is that a thing you've thought about a lot in this process?

AWARTANI: Yeah. Like, yeah. Like, I'm very lucky.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Last day. So excited for you.

AWARTANI: I'm excited, too.

GABER: I'm waiting with Hisham and his family at a rehab clinic in Boston for word that he's been discharged after two months of treatment and therapy.

AWARTANI: I'm leaving, finally leaving.

GABER: I knew this is a moment he's wanted for a long time, and I also knew, on some level, he'd been thinking about what it meant to go back to school.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Tonight, Brown University students grappling with the shooting of one of their own.

GABER: Almost immediately after Hisham was shot, he'd become a symbol of Palestinian oppression and resistance for many at Brown University, where he goes to school.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) Brown Corporation is a scam, no others like Hisham.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Brown Corporation is a scam, no others like Hisham.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) For Hisham, for Hisham, for us all.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Hisham was shot because of your complicity.

AWARTANI: I don't like seeing my name plastered everywhere, but I condone it inasmuch as using my name and my experience can elicit more of an emotional reaction and can get the point home. I mean, yeah, like, it sucks to say, but, like, people here find it hard to empathize with people in Gaza than they would me.

GABER: Why do you think that empathy is so different?

AWARTANI: Because in many different reasons, I think that Palestinians and Palestine are always, like, the way that people excuse it is that they're always assumed to be a terrorist. And here, it's just - it's absurd to use the same logic that the Israeli army uses on me because I'm, like, I'm literally in like, Burlington, Vt. Like, you can't say he was trying to stab someone. You can't say he was part of a terrorist organization. You know, like, in so many of the cases, like, they shoot people like unarmed or walking away or, you know, doing nothing. And - but just because they say - they provide the bare minimum of an excuse, they get away with it.

GABER: Over the last few years, Hisham has become involved with the Brown University divestment movement, the same one that has been using his name on campus in recent protests. They are calling for the school to divest from all companies linked to the Israeli military. They say the investments are supporting the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, where Hisham grew up.

AWARTANI: I think it's ridiculous that universities are invested in arms companies.

GABER: But now that he's back at Brown, his activism is going to look a little different.

Sounds like you kind of want to lower profile. You don't want to plan on being involved in that as much when you get back.

AWARTANI: I mean, more so, like, behind the scenes and such.

GABER: Hisham says just the act of returning to school is part of that.

AWARTANI: Palestinians love education. It was very little mobility. I feel like people go to education to alleviate that. Yeah, it's our way of resisting in a sense. You know, I'm not going to let this break my stride. And I keep walking forward.

DETROW: That was the first installment in the latest series from Notes From America. The podcast is following Brown University student Hisham Awartani as he processes the long-term effects of being shot. For more on his journey, listen to Notes From America from WNYC wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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