Azim Khamisa lost his son to violence but discovered a mission to change the world.
On a day when local murders continued to make the headlines, nationally known speaker Azim Khamisa brought a story of forgiveness and a message of hope to the Rochester area.
“At some level, we are all responsible for the community we’ve created,” he said. “It’s important that we come together as a community to solve these problems.” After the murder of his son, Tariq, Azim Khamisa went from investment banker to staunch supporter of nonviolence. On April 1, he brought the story of his transformation to SUNY College at Brockport.
Tariq Khamisa, a 20-year-old student at San Diego State University, was delivering pizzas for extra money on a night in 1995 when a group of youths lured him to an apartment complex with a bogus order. The group, consisting of 14-year-old recruits led by an 18-year-old gang member, intended to rob the young man.
“As my son was trying to leave the scene of the crime, the 18-year-old gave the order, ‘Bust him, Bone,’” Azim Khamisa said. “Bone,” a 14-year-old named Tony Hicks, fired one shot, killing the young man. The senseless, random murder of a young man his father called “a joy to be around” left the entire family reeling.
“How do you tell a mother she’s never going to see her son again?” Azim Khamisa said. “I can hear her shrieking in my ear as I speak.”
While others might have responded to the news with enraged demands for retribution, the Sufi Muslim turned inward, looking for meaning in his son’s death.
“What I saw were two victims: my son (a victim) of the 14-year-old, the 14-year-old a victim of society,” he explained. “Kids were not born killers.”
After a brief period of soul-searching, Azim Khamisa forgave Tony Hicks.
“A broken heart is an open heart,” he wrote in his journal soon after Tariq’s death. “If one can learn to live with a broken heart, gentle transformations begin to happen.”
Touched by the forgiveness of the father of the man he’d killed, Hicks took full responsibility for Tariq’s murder and accepted a sentence of 25-years-to-life—the first juvenile to be tried as an adult in California. The sentence gave no comfort to Tariq’s father.
“There were essentially victims at both sides of the gun in my son’s tragedy,” he said.
To honor his son’s life and give his death some meaning, Azim Khamisa founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, (TKF) an organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of youth violence through teaching non-violent dispute settlement and the effects of violence.
“If we truly understand the pain that violence causes, I don’t believe we could do it,” he said.
One of the cause’s first converts was Ples Felix, Hicks’ grandfather and guardian. Joined by their mutual pain—and a desire to save others from that pain—the two became fast friends.
“He’s as close to me as my own family,” TKF’s founder and CEO said.
Now vice president of the foundation, Felix has worked alongside its founder to spread the principles of non-violence and the importance of forgiveness around the US. Even Hicks could eventually come to help with the work. Azim Khamisa, who regularly visits and corresponds with the young man in prison, has offered him a job at TKF when he gets out—which would be in 2027, at the earliest.
While many of TKF’s programs are more geared toward promoting personal efforts to decrease the violence in our society, the organization’s founder challenged his audience to push for more widespread change—particularly at a time when the U.S. is spending billions on warfare.
“It’s going to be up to you as you leave your university and take on positions to really, really make some big shifts in our country which are so, so needed,” he told the students in the room. “We need better leaders in our country that can promote and teach the principles of nonviolence and peacemaking.”
As the crowd filed out of the hall, Gary Bruno, a senior socio-therapist at Rochester’s Hillside Children’s Center, said TKF’s programs could help the 12-to-17-year-olds with whom he works stay off the wrong path after leaving Hillside.
“Most of them are in gangs, have been in gangs, plan on leaving gangs,” Bruno said. “Something like this would definitely help and continue to make sure that they don’t lead back to that path.”
Brockport’s chapter of the American Democracy Project for Civic Engagement sponsored Azim Khamisa’s visit to the college.
“Azim is the model of where citizenship and humanity intersect,” said Brockport professor Cynthia Boaz, who organized the event. “If this man can forgive his son’s murder, what else are we capable of as a people?”
For information on the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, access www.tkf.org.