Asian Pacific Heritage Month Local Hero Azim Khamisa Teaches Principles of Non-Violence
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2015 Honoree
Six weeks before Tariq Khamisa's 21st birthday, on a cold Saturday night in January 1995, the San Diego State University sophomore was gunned down while delivering pizza. It was part of a gang initiation, called "Jacking the Pizza Man," and Tony Hicks, the one being initiated, fired the fatal bullet. He was 14 years old.
For Azim Khamisa, a 2015 Asian Pacific Heritage Month Local Hero born in Kenya, that night in 1995 became the end of life as he knew it.
“It’s very complicated to lose a child, and the worst possible nightmare for a parent,” says Khamisa. “I had just returned from Mexico that day. As an international investment banker, I traveled the world. That night some friends of mine picked me up at the airport and we went to a party. I had no clue that my son had already been shot and killed. The next morning, a little card left on the front door said that Homicide was trying to reach Tariq’s family. I called. The first thing I thought as I was told about my son was they made a mistake. Parents don’t go there.”
Khamisa then phoned his son’s apartment.
“It was early Sunday morning, so I thought he’ll pick up the phone,” explains Khamisa. “Of course he didn’t. His fiancé, Jennifer, did. She was sobbing and couldn’t say anything, and then it hit. I was in my kitchen and I remember losing all strength in both of my legs. I fell to the floor and hit my head against the refrigerator. It's hard for me to describe how excruciatingly painful that experience was. Like a nuclear bomb had gone off in my heart, and I had my first out of body experience. You hear that from victims that are severely traumatized, that they actually have an out-of-body experience.”
In that moment, Khamisa's faith helped him to draw strength.
“I left my body because I couldn’t withstand the pain,” he says. “As a Sufi Muslim, the metaphysical arm of Islam, I believe in God. So I went into the embrace of God for what seemed like a long time, but was actually about 15 minutes, and when the explosion subsided, he sent me back into my body with the wisdom that there are victims at both ends of the gun. It didn’t come from my intellect or my feelings of hurt. It came from a higher power.”
This revelation gelled for Khamisa, during a trip to Mammoth, California, which soon led him to forgiveness and founding the Tariq Khamisa Foundation.
“In my religion, we have a 40-day grieving period,” he explains. “The spirit of the person who died stays with you and you’re supposed to grieve. But in April I went to Mammoth and a vision came to me. I was taught that when you do good compassionate deeds in the name of the departed, you create spiritual currency, which helps them in the next world. I felt that if I created a foundation, I could do compassionate deeds for Tariq, so that he could finish his journey in the next world in a rocket. It’s a win for him and it’s a win for me, for I’d lost all purpose. I couldn’t even get out of bed, and was suicidal at one point, but once I decided to do this, that energy came back.”
In October of that same year, he founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, where he educates youth on the values that promote nonviolence. When Khamisa speaks to students, often at his side is Tony Hicks’ grandfather, Ples Felix Jr. For Khamisa, reaching out to Felix has been part of the process.
“I told him that we both lost a son,” he states. “My son died. He lost his grandson to the criminal justice system, the first 14-year-old in California to be tried as an adult. I can’t bring my son back from the dead and there’s nothing he can do to get Tony out of prison. So the one thing he and I could do is to make sure no other young person in our community ends up dead or in prison. Ples was very quick to take my hand of forgiveness. We’ve been together for 20 years, and he’s very involved. We speak at schools all the time, and he’s as passionate about it as I am. Our school assemblies are very powerful.”
The mission of the foundation is to stop kids from killing kids by breaking the cycle of youth violence.
“We essentially have three mandates,” explains Khamisa. “The first is to save lives of children. When a child dies in any community, we are diminished. The second is to empower the right choices so kids don’t end up in gangs with drugs and alcohol, and all of the stuff that goes on. Our third goal is to teach the principles of non-violence—of empathy, of compassion and forgiveness—because violence is a learned behavior. No child is born violent. If you accept that as a truism then non-violence can also be a learned behavior. You have to teach it because kids are not going to learn through osmosis.”
Khamisa didn't meet Hicks until he was 19, and now they write to each other regularly. Today, 20 years have passed and Hicks is 34 and working on his associate degree in child psychology. Khamisa has already promised him a job with the foundation once he is paroled, in approximately three years.
Khamisa's daughter, Tasreen, became the executive director of the foundation three years after its founding. These days, Khamisa serves as a consultant and travels around the world making presentations. He still works in finance, but that has taken a back seat to speaking at schools and prisons, and to writing four books on the topic of forgiveness, finding fulfillment and peace.
“It’s easy to see my son as a victim, but a little harder to see Tony as one," he admits. "But Tony was 14 when he made the choice that took less than a second, and now he's still in prison. So I figure, who is the enemy? Is it the 14-year-old who killed my son, or is it societal forces that essentially force many young–especially minority–kids, to fall through the cracks?”
Khamisa believes the work he is doing helps keep him connected to his son.
“I think my son is helping," he notes. "I connect with him through my meditation. If I’m home alone I put his photo on the table and talk to him. I feel him spiritually and I believe he’s helping from the other side. So it gets me up in the morning because I feel by doing this, I’m creating high octane fuel for him in the next world, and he is soaring.”
When reflecting on the impact he’s had through his presentations on behalf of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, Khamisa feels he's exactly where he needs to be.
"I chose to forgive 20 years ago, and it has brought me to peace," acknowledges Khamisa, who is now a grandfather to his daughter’s three children. "I know it was the right choice. I gave 107 presentations last year, and was on the road 177 days. I don't plan to slow down, and will stay involved with the foundation for the rest of my life–until I’m not able to do it."