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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Palestinian and Muslim students express fear in the wake of Burlington attack

Since the attack, students and community members have expressed grief and frustration towards the College for its lack of response.

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This article is featured in the 2024 Winter Carnival special issue.

On Nov. 25, three college students of Palestinian descent were shot and seriously injured on a walk near the University of Vermont’s Burlington campus — only two hours away from Dartmouth College. According to court records, Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad were wearing keffiyehs — a traditional Arab headdress — and speaking a mix of Arabic and English moments before the attack. Abdalhamid attends Haverford College, Ahmad is a student at Trinity College and Awartani is a student at Brown University.

The court hearing for the attack is scheduled for March 8 and will determine whether the attack will be classified as a hate crime. According to Vermont statutes, for an attack to be considered a hate crime, it must be motivated by the “victim’s actual or perceived protected category.”

Since the attack, Dartmouth students and community members have expressed grief and frustration towards the College for its lack of response. An international student from Gaza, Ahmad Herzallah ’27 said he feels “unsafe” to go out on campus wearing a keffiyeh or anything that signifies his Palestinian identity. He discussed his fear of vocalizing any opinion, whether related to Palestine or not. Together these factors contributed to Herzallah’s growing sense of isolation.

“I just had to stick with my friends,” Herzallah said. “And if they were not available, I’d just stick to my room.”

Herzallah said he expected the College to make a statement regarding the attack to reassure the safety of students, especially those who may know or be connected to the students attacked in Burlington.

“After the shooting — [with it] happening close to Dartmouth College — [Dartmouth] should be the first college to make a statement,” Herzallah said. “They didn’t even talk about it.”

The College’s media relations specialist, Jana Barnello, wrote that at the time of the shooting “most” students were not on campus anymore. While Barnello referenced email statements from the Tucker Center Chaplains and the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, she did not provide The Dartmouth with an email from college administration.

“As far back as August 1, [the College has] received no bias reports of Islamophobic or antisemitic harassment of discrimination at Dartmouth,” Barnello wrote.

Student body vice president Kiara Ortiz ’24 said it is “valid” for students to feel upset that the College did not make a statement in response to the attack. According to Ortiz, Dartmouth Student Government voiced students’ concerns regarding the attack to Provost David Kotz ’86 and Executive Vice President for Strategy Jomysha Delgado Stephen on Dec. 14. Ortiz said that Kotz and Stephen responded that they had already developed an “action plan” and resources for students.

“When [DSG] brought it up that we were concerned, and that students were concerned, [College officials] already had developed an action plan and were developing resources,” Ortiz explained.

According to Ortiz, the “action plan” involves hostile intruder training that will be hosted by the Department of Safety and Security on Feb. 15 to prepare students for how to respond in dangerous situations, such as the presence of an active shooter on campus. DoSS director Keiselim Montás wrote in a statement to The Dartmouth that these trainings have been regularly offered every term and can be extended to student organizations upon request.

“Presenters will discuss mitigation strategies used to assist people in crisis, case studies of active shooters and similar events and interagency response plans from Safety and Security and the Hanover Police,” Montás wrote.

Ortiz shared her concern that the Feb. 15 training will occur too late to ease the fear or frustration of students who were affected by the attack.

“We’d hope it was moving on a faster timeline,” Ortiz said. “Our role now is to kind of keep reminding [College officials] that students are awaiting for some extra and additional support.”

Aya Hajjeh ’25, an international student from Syria, noted that while College President Sian Beilock individually met with a group of Palestinian students after the attack, she did not meet with other members of the Arab and Muslim campus communities. Dean of the College Scott Brown, along with two other administrative members, met with Al-Nur — the College’s Muslim student association — over winterim, according to Hajjeh.

“They basically asked us how we were feeling and how they can better support us,” Hajjeh said. “I thought that was very genuine and very thoughtful for them to do that. I really appreciated it.”

Abdul Rahman Latif — Muslim chaplain and Tucker Center for Spiritual and Ethical Life associate director — highlighted that ignorance and the conflation of identities increase the number of people who are subject to Islamophobia. Latif explained that because of this conflation, the victims of Islamophobia are not just Muslims.

“Any brown person is potentially a victim, anyone with a beard is potentially a victim,” Latif said. “Anyone who wears a scarf, who might not be Muslim … might be potentially at risk of something Islamophobic. These are the very real consequences.”

Hajjeh said that there is “absolutely” a relationship between the spread of misinformation and instances of hate crimes. Hajjeh pointed to how the White House retracted President Joe Biden’s statements on Hamas because they were untrue. However, she believes these statements had already contributed to misinformation.

According to reporting from The Washington Post, Biden’s claim to have personally seen photos of children beheaded by Hamas was later clarified to be false by White House administrative official John Kirby.

“For somebody who’s in the United States, [you] should be concerned about the connection between what the government of your country is saying … and the direct effect in the country, leading to this hate crime happening,” Hajjeh said.

Hajjeh said that she was not expecting an email from the College in response to the attack because of how it handled Oct. 7 and its decisions to “[take] things out of context” and “not mention a single word” about Palestinians in their email following Oct. 7. According to reporting by NPR and the Washington Post, since Oct. 7, 390 educational institutions in Gaza have been destroyed, and the number of deaths in Gaza has reached 20,000.

“It’s been like three months, and they haven’t sent an email or anything about Palestinians,” Hajjeh said. “In the email they sent on Oct. 7, they didn’t mention the 75 years of occupation. It’s like they already pushed it aside, and they want to stick to it, so I wasn’t really expecting much.”

Latif said that the purpose of public statements is to make students feel “heard” and “seen.” Almost every day since the shooting, Latif said he has worn his keffiyeh to convey to students that they are safe.

“I think allyship matters,” Latif said. “I think partnership matters, people being there for each other, helping each other.”

Hajjeh shared that she felt “terrified” after the shooting because of Burlington’s proximity to Hanover and her similarities with the victims of the attack as a college student who openly speaks Arabic on campus. However, the day after the shooting, Hajjeh chose to wear her keffiyeh as a “sign of solidarity.”

“This is like nothing compared to what’s actually happening in Gaza right now,” Hajjeh said. “As much as I was scared, I thought I have to wear [my keffiyeh] because I have to show my sign of solidarity to [the student victims].”

Herzallah also shared his fear that hate crimes could occur in Hanover. In 2022, a man directed racial epithets and then attacked a graduate student on Main Street. The incident was investigated as a hate crime and is currently scheduled for trial on March 25, according to Hanover Police Department Records Coordinator Sherry Tallman.

“Because the shooting was so close, who knows what college could be next,” Herzallah said.

Hajjeh said that while she was “shocked” that Palestinians were attacked in the United States, she understood that crises are not limited to a certain geography, and that conflicts go beyond borders.

“There are human consequences to what happens across the globe,” Latif said. “We might think that violence elsewhere does not affect us, but it really does.”