Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2006

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From Murder to Forgiveness

By Azim Khamisa
Illustration by Jennifer R. Geanakos

A father turns the tragedy of his son's murder into a life-long goal to spread messages of reconciliation and restoration to schools and the justice system.

Azim Khamisa was the subject of a "Voices for Children" interview in the Summer 1996 (Vol. 5, No. 4) issue of Children's Voice.--Ed

We generally think of religions as healing, loving forces in the world. Today, however, there are Christians, Jews, and Muslims who are directly engaged in demonizing one another in unending cycles of hatred and hostility. How do we end the distrust among peoples? How do we live with each other in love, truth, light, and peace?

Lives are being lost as we speak. Families dread the message that will tell them the death rolls now include the names of those they love. Behind the headlines of war and violence, there is always the agony of real people experiencing unspeakable pain, one heart at a time. I write from this perspective--from one heart that knows such pain.

I did not lose my son in the deserts of Afghanistan or Iraq, but in the ongoing, endless war on the streets of the United States. It may be worse to know that your child is going into battle and may never come home. I do not know. It may be harder to get the call that confirms your fears. My son went out to deliver pizzas, not to combat his country's foes.

My son, Tariq, was 20--a bright, warm-hearted art student earning his spending money at a pizza place in our beautiful city, San Diego. An order came in, just before closing, and Tariq jumped into his Volkswagen to make the delivery. But a gang was waiting for him, and they had no intention of paying for their late-night snack. The gang leader handed a gun to a 14-year-old boy and told him to get the pizzas. Tariq, with all the invincibility of the young, got back in his car, with the pizzas--and the boy killed him.

I have described my own experience as having a nuclear bomb go off in my heart--parents simply are not designed to withstand the murder of a child. Everything stopped for me. My intense work as an international investment banker, my pleasant social life, my certainty that I was taking good care of my family, protecting them--all my certainties ended with Tariq's life. I called Tariq's mother, whose scream helped me know how real the horror was. I called my daughter, feeling my utter failure. Fathers are supposed to make everything all right, to make the world safe and secure for their children. I had failed. Her only little brother had been shot and killed.

Tariq's funeral was held in Vancouver, British Columbia, where both sets of his grandparents live. More than 1,000 people observed the rites of the Ismaili Muslim faith. For two hours, they circled his body, chanting a prayer for the salvation of his soul and generating the strength the family needed to bury him. In our ritual, the father stands in the grave to receive the child's body into his arms. I did not want to leave him there alone. I wanted to stay with him. But my Muslim family brought me back to stand with the living, to begin the rest of my life--without my son.

Burning Rage, Wounded Pride

The next day, the rage came. But it was not aimed at Tariq's killer. It was aimed at the hideous absurdity of children, too young to drive, having access to handguns. It was aimed at the breakdown of community that put a young boy on a dark street, becoming a killer to prove himself to a gang. How could this happen, here, in the country to which I had fled for refuge from violence?

I came to the United States in 1974, fleeing the violence of Idi Amin's regime in Uganda, which was spilling over into my birthplace, Kenya. In leaving Africa, we lost everything material, but we gained something far more valuable--a peaceful homeland. As my children were growing up, I told them my greatest gift to them was to live in this blessed, safe country. When I pledged allegiance to this country as one of its newest citizens, I was filled with joy and pride.

The rage that followed Tariq's funeral burned away that pride--I had literally made a fatal mistake. My American-born son had been killed on a street in the country I had chosen for him. I considered leaving. But where was there to go? My love for this country was stronger than my rage, and common sense told me there was no place on earth where I could escape the loss of my son. I had to stay, I had to fight, and I had to make some sense of the rest of my life.

People around me were expecting my anger to focus on Tariq's killer. But that made no sense to me. An eye for an eye? The wise Hindu, Gandhi, reminded us, "An eye for an eye, and soon the whole world is blind." Tariq's life had been taken, but why would I want the life of his killer? He was a child who had lost what remained of his childhood, who would surely lose much of his adulthood as well. A child named Tony Hicks was in custody for Tariq's murder.

From the onset, I saw victims at both ends of the gun--Tony and Tariq--victims of a society I had helped create. I had been a citizen of this nation for decades, but what had I done to ensure its children were safe? That they lived in a country where children do not shoot each other? Where kids did not feel the need to join gangs to feel respected and protected?

Seeing Tariq's Soul on Its Journey

Like so many of us when horror strikes, I turned to my faith. My spiritual teachers reminded me that mourning could fill the first 40 days of Tariq's journey in the next world, but after that, after we said the prayers that closed the 40 days, excessive grieving would impede his soul's journey. I must turn my grief into good deeds for the living, deeds that would fuel his soul's journey, not hinder it. The quality of the rest of my life depended totally on my reaction to Tariq's murder; for a life to have quality, it must have purpose.

My faith had given me a cause, a reason for living. I would turn my grief into the good deed of stopping other children from killing each other. I would turn my rage into bringing greater peace to this country I so love. I would help Tariq's soul on its journey. And I would help my country protect all its children. I would become the foe, not of my son's killer, but of the forces that put a young boy on a dark street, holding a handgun.

I decided to start the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF) as the framework for the work I would do in my son's name--ending youth violence. In the past, I had volunteered and contributed, mostly to causes that benefited people in other countries. Now I would focus on a cause in my own country, starting in my city of San Diego. My personal energy began to return as I talked with people in the community about taking part in this enormous task.

Through it all, my thoughts kept going to the family of the other boy, to the family of Tony Hicks. What must they be suffering as petitions circulated in the community to try their boy as an adult? How were they dealing with the horror of what the child had done? From deep and long meditations, I was inspired to reach out in forgiveness to Ples Felix, the boy's grandfather, who was also his guardian.

He is a good man, this Ples Felix, a kind, smart, caring man who is a project manager for the city of San Diego. He has a master's degree in urban development, completed two tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret, and is devoutly spiritual. He dearly loved his grandson and was devastated by what the child had done, on the first night that he had ever defied his grandfather and left the house to meet with the gang.

At our first meeting, Ples told me of his daily prayers for my family and me, and I told him of my concern for him, for Tony, and for all the other kids who were trying to cope with this violent world. Yes, it was difficult. His Tony had killed my Tariq. But the man was suffering deeply, feeling the guilt of his own inability to keep a child he loved safe in this world, grieving that the child was now lost to him, and grieving for Tariq as well.

Ples's grandson, a boy Ples knew as gentle and loving, a boy who carried his hopes for the future, was, at age 14, the first juvenile to be sentenced as an adult in California. Tony was sent to Folsom Prison. So we became brothers in grief, Ples and I, and brothers in our determination to end the hideous cycle of violence.

The press and many citizens of our community held Ples responsible for what happened: He must have treated Tony badly, or simply failed to teach him basic ethics. Being in the public eye was not a pleasant experience for this man. It was an act of great bravery for him to offer his services to the foundation.

Ples and I do the work of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation--saving children's lives--together. TKF has reached more than 350,000 kids in live programs, and millions via digital media. Beginning this year, Discovery Education will offer TKF's programs, organized into six different digitized video vignettes, to some 24,000 schools and potentially 10.5 million children.

Creating Leaders Who Are Peacemakers

TKF's mission is to stop kids from killing kids. Our violence prevention work has received incredible domestic and international acknowledgements, and the work continues to grow in scope. We have received several thousand letters from kids affected by our five key messages:
  • Violence is real and hurts everyone.
  • Actions have consequences.
  • Youth can make good and nonviolent choices.
  • Youth can work toward forgiveness, as opposed to seeking revenge.
  • Everyone deserves to be loved and treated well.
My dream is for TKF's programs to be in every elementary and middle school in San Diego, and thereafter, in my lifetime, to be in every 4th through 8th grade classroom in our country and in the world. Yes, someday we will be in places like Israel, Palestine, and Iraq. Our goal is to create leaders who are peacemakers and those who can resolve conflict without violence; the vision must begin with our children. I invite you to learn more about the work of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. Our website is easy to remember: www.tkf.org.

Each school year, several thousand students hear our inspiring message of peace, forgiveness, and positive choices at assemblies in their schools. Our programs empower students to reap the benefits of positive, nonviolent choices; to find the inner strength to resist negative peer pressure; to establish supportive safety nets; to understand the devastating consequences of violence; and to work toward forgiveness as opposed to seeking revenge. Ples and I are living proof it is possible to break the cycle of violence.

These kids are surprised to see us together. In their world, injury and insult lead to violence in an escalating cycle. But they see us, they hear us speak about the tragedy of violence, and they speak--many of them for the first time--of the pain violence has caused in their own lives. In a society where 12 young people die violently every day, where 237 kids are arrested every day for violent crimes, the kids in our program pledge themselves to nonviolence. Violent incidents decrease at their schools. Fewer kids join gangs. I am truly happy to share that our programs work.

Restorative Justice

One other young person who is very much in our hearts is Tony Hicks. It took me a while, but I now go with Ples to visit Tony. When he was first arrested, the boy had no remorse, no understanding of what he had done. But by the time of his trial, he did understand and took responsibility. He is no longer the tough-talking, unfeeling kid being macho for his gang. Now, he talks to us about his regrets, his fears, and his hopes.

Tony began studying for his GED, no thanks to the state prison system. I was shocked to learn the state had no provision for educating a prisoner as young as Tony. Ples was able to obtain study guides and textbooks for him. Tony could finish his sentence in his 40s, but the state system would return him to society with only a prisoner's understanding of the world, with no knowledge or skills to contribute to society.

This makes absolutely no sense. It is shortsighted, wrong-headed, and designed for maximum damage to individuals and society. Revenge, punishment, and release back into society--could there possibly be a better process for feeding the endless cycle of violence that drags us deeper and deeper into the abyss?

That realization has led me to focus some of my attention on the reform movement for restorative justice. An important part of the basic principles of restorative justice is that criminals should be guided into understanding the effect of their actions on their victims, that they should make restitution not to the state but to those victims, and that our reformatories should indeed do the work of reforming criminals into productive citizens.

My work in this area includes developing the Constant and Never Ending Improvement program (CANEI) under the auspices of the National Youth Advocate Program. CANEI (www.canei.org) is a strengths-based program that seeks to help adolescents served by the child welfare or juvenile justice systems restore confidence and control in their lives.

In my book--Azim's Bardo: A Father's Journey From Murder to Forgiveness--I have allocated a full chapter on restorative justice. In the context of juvenile criminals, I want to see our system changed to a restorative justice approach. Why? One compelling reason may be that the current criminal justice system is just not providing, in most cases, any justice at all. Its results are dismal. Besides that, however, there are three important reasons why restorative justice makes sense.

First, most criminals do return to society at some point. If they cannot heal and be restored as functioning members of society, there is a good chance they will return as criminals. When that happens, they lose, their new victims lose, and we all lose.

Second, I believe every human being is the repository of unique gifts. Yes, even criminals have something of value buried within them. As with the mining of precious metals, it might require a lot of effort to find it, dig it out, polish it, and reveal its value, but I will never be comfortable with the idea of slamming doors shut forever on young people who have made one terrible mistake. The more we mine their resources and allow them to contribute to the community, the better our chances are to live a rich, peaceful life.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that the victim needs to heal too. When we are victimized by a criminal act, it is natural to feel anger. But permanent, unabated anger is destructive and harmful to us. It fills us with hatred and tension and blocks out love and joy. The criminal needs the victim's forgiveness to heal.

And in one of human nature's strange twists, full healing for the victim may require him or her to grant that forgiveness. There may be no other way to defuse the destructive anger one feels. No one wants to feel used in such a process--no one wants to be duped by a slick operator. Forgiveness should not be casually handed out as if it were penny candy. The stage must be set properly. That is what restorative justice tries to accomplish.

The prison system offers none of these things to Tony, but we, as individuals, have not left him to this destructive system. Tony Hicks will be a productive, contributing citizen when he is at last a free man. And I have told him that when that day comes, there will be a job waiting for him at the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. Can you see the power of Tony joining his grandfather and me at a school, talking to the kids about the disastrous choices he made when he was only 14? In my heart of hearts, I know we will save Tony. And Tony in turn will save thousands and thousands of other kids. That is the power of forgiveness.

We are teaching kids that through conflict we can create brotherhood and unity. Ples and I are different in many ways. He is Christian, I am a Muslim. He is African American, and I have Eastern roots. We have lived in different circles and would never have met had Tony not taken Tariq's life. Now we are brothers--we have been together for 11 years, and Ples is as much a part of my family as my own family members. He helps me carry my load, and I help him carry his. If we can come together in the spirit of forgiveness, there is much hope for our society.

Azim Khamisa is founder and CEO of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the mission of stopping children from killing children and breaking the cycle of youth violence. He resides in La Jolla, California, and can be contacted at azim@azimkhamisa.com. This article was adapted from the March 2004 issue of Science of Mind magazine.


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