No Palestinian is safe anywhere in the world

I knew and taught the three Palestinian students shot in the US. This attack has left me more fearful for my students.

Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot near the University of Vermont in Burlington on November 25, 2023
Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three Palestinian college students, were shot near the University of Vermont in Burlington on November 25, 2023 [Awartani family/Reuters] (Reuters)

On November 26 in the afternoon, I received a call from the director of the school where I teach informing me that three former students had been shot in the United States.

Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdulhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, some of the brightest students I knew and taught, were shot and almost killed. I choked on my tears as I phoned another teacher to let her know.

I started teaching English at the Ramallah Friends School in the central occupied West Bank in October of 2019. The following year, I started teaching Hisham and Kinnan and met Tahseen. I came to know them as they were preparing to cross the finish line of their high school career, and in one year, they managed to leave an incredible mark on me as their teacher.

Their diligence and commitment to excelling at their studies motivated me to be the best teacher I could be.

The Ramallah Friends School is the only International Baccalaureate and Quaker school in the occupied West Bank. Our student body is diverse and includes students from the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem but also dual nationals from Western countries.

All students come from families that are working tirelessly to provide their children with the best possible education that Palestine can afford. Our students go through a rigorous curriculum, in order to make them more eligible to apply for universities abroad.

Yet, living under the precariousness of military occupation means that my students regularly miss classes because of general strikes that take place after Israeli soldiers kill children and adults – sometimes metres away from the school or their homes.

Every Palestinian student, whether going to a private or a public school, has a classmate who has been arrested, detained, tortured or killed by the Israeli military.

Hisham Awartani at graduation
Hisham Awartani graduated from Ramallah Friends School in 2021 [Courtesy of Marwah Abdel Jabbar]

Palestinian children are constantly facing their mortality and have to be hyper aware of their surroundings every time they cross a checkpoint or commute to another city.

My students – and Palestinian students in general – who are applying to go to university abroad are searching for better opportunities, and ultimately, safer ones.

Kinnan, Hisham, and Tahseen all applied to many top tier universities. I vividly remember when Kinnan and Hisham shared they had been admitted to Haverford and Brown with me. It was the first time I finally saw all their stress and anxiety wither away.

They crossed their most important finish line to their high school careers. I was incredibly proud, but not surprised. I witnessed their eloquent and introspective thoughts in class. I saw them grapple with course material and excel. I knew what they were capable of achieving even when they couldn’t see it immediately themselves. I was their teacher, and they were my students, and that was all that mattered to me at that moment.

Kinnan Abdalhamid at graduation ceremony
Kinnan Abdalhamid graduated from Ramallah Friends School in 2021 [Courtesy of Marwah Abdel Jabbar]

When Kinnan, Hisham and Tahseen graduated, I realised that this would most likely be the last time I see them, as they were leaving for the US. I never imagined that the next time I heard from them or about them would be that they had fallen victim to a shooting.

I think I can speak for my entire school community when I say that we were all into a state of shock and disbelief. Western media and government officials cannot divorce the attempted murder of our students from the ongoing genocide in Gaza, the assault on the Jenin refugee camp, the land theft and serial settler violence and colonisation of Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank – all perpetrated by Israel.

My students were shot because their language and their identity are perceived as a threat by the white coloniser’s mind.

I grappled with whether or not I should say anything about the shooting. I made a decision when I saw Hisham’s heartfelt and principled statement read out at a candlelight vigil at Brown University.

Even though I wasn’t surprised by his wisdom, I was still awestruck. He put things in perspective for me and many others with his closing sentence: “your mind should not focus on me [him] as an individual, but rather as a proud member of a people being oppressed.”

The cruelty of this tragedy has left me in a state of unease. How do I face my students? How do I motivate them and give them hope? How do I assure their safety? The reality of being a teacher in Palestine means that these questions haunt one’s mind. This is incomparable to how Palestinian parents feel every day.

The truth is, after November 26, I found out that my students always gave me more hope than I did to them, and that no Palestinian is safe anywhere in the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.