Tragedy leads father to new career as a peace activist
The power of forgiveness changed his life
More than seventeen years ago, Azim Khamisa got a call that every parent would dread getting.
His son Tariq, a 20-year-old student at San Diego State University, had been shot and killed.
Tariq was killed by Tony Hicks, a 14-year-old gang wannabe as part of a gang initiation. Tariq, then working as a weekend pizza delivery driver, had been lured to a wrong address, was shot and drowned in his own blood.
Khamisa, an international investment banker, said that his son’s murder turned his life upside down. He went through the stages of mourning, rage, despair, and even suicidal thoughts. But eventually, he decided to turn a negative into a positive and become a peace activist.
Now Khamisa travels the country teaching lessons on nonviolence and forgiveness, quite a turnaround from where he was after his son’s death. He has been hailed by dignitaries such as the
Dalai Llama and Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist. And the awards he has received have been numerous.
“At one point I was suicidal,” he said. But Khamisa decided that he didn’t want to dwell on anger and despair and decided to focus on the issue of violence, which had radically reshaped his life.
“I felt that if violence is a learned behavior, then nonviolence is also a learned behavior,” Khamisa said.
Khamisa founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, an organization that teaches young people the principles of nonviolence. Its mission is “to break the cycle of youth violence by saving lives, empowering kids and teaching peace.” Khamisa started the foundation with $8,000 of his own money, and it currently employs more than 40 full-time employees and has 13 board members.
The foundation’s programs have a winning record. According to Khamisa, schools that have used their programs have seen a 66 percent reduction in violence and suspensions.
Through the foundation and his public speaking, Khamisa has made it his mission to spread peace and reduce violence. He realizes that most public schools are so busy teaching students the fundamentals that they do not have time to teach classes on peace, and that is where the Tariq Khamisa Foundation comes in.
Khamisa has also done something that is quite amazing. He not only forgave, Hicks, but he also developed a relationship with Hicks’ grandfather and guardian, Ples Felix. The two became founders of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, and they now appear on the lecture circuit talking about nonviolence.
Khamisa told CBS’ Julie Chen in 2009 that he met his son’s killer in prison five years after the tragedy. “It took many hours of meditation because you don’t know how you’re going to react when you come eyeball to eyeball with yours child’s killer. I remember looking into his eyes for a very long time trying to find the murderer in him, but I didn’t see a murderer in him. I looked in his eyes and saw another soul, much like me and much like you.”
Hicks received 25 years to life without parole for his crime. According to Khamisa, Hicks has now turned his life around in jail. “He is no longer about gang-banging,” Khamisa said. In fact, Khamisa said he has become a father figure to Hicks. “He didn’t have a father. He was born to a 15-year-old, and I’ve kinda taken the father role to him,” said Khamisa.
Hicks passed his GED and is currently working on a college degree. “I told him I forgave him, and he has a job at the foundation (when he gets out.),” Khamisa said.
Khamisa said that his journey from rage to forgiveness and peace activism has not been easy. He said he fell back on his faith for support. Khamisa is a Sufi Muslim, a sect that focuses on mysticism and also practices meditation.
“It (forgiveness) takes a lot of courage, but it’s doable,” Khamisa said. Khamisa has written several books about his journey, including “From Murder to Forgiveness: A Father’s Journey” and “The Secrets of a Bulletproof Spirit” (written with Jillian Quinn), which are available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.
Khamisa’s website is www.azimkhamisa.com.
Tony Hicks, founder of the Black Parent Union, is an educational consultant specializing in parent and community involvement, who has worked in the public schools for more than 24 years. He has worked in the classroom, serving on councils/committees, coordinating the activities of parent liaisons, conducting workshops, training staff, hosting a cable television show, and leading instructional audits.