By Joe Tash
Eighteen years ago, Azim Khamisa’s only son, Tariq, was shot to death by a 14-year-old gang member during an attempted robbery in a San Diego neighborhood.
Tariq, 20, was a college journalism student moonlighting as a pizza deliveryman. His killer, Tony Hicks, was later tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Khamisa, a La Jolla resident, reached out to the killer’s grandfather and legal guardian, Plez Felix, and asked him to help with a newly adopted cause — ending youth violence. The pair forged what has become a lifelong bond as they’ve taken their message of non-violence, compassion and forgiveness to tens of thousands of middle schoolers in San Diego and beyond.
Khamisa, featured speaker at the March 28 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Democratic Club, held at the Lomas Santa Fe Country Club, lives by the philosophy he espouses.
Five years after his son’s death, Khamisa visited Tony Hicks in prison, where he forgave the youth for his crime. Since then, he has lobbied for Hicks’ early release from prison (Hicks, now 32, is eligible for release in 2027), has offered him a job when he gets out, and corresponds regularly with his son’s killer.
Hicks has shown remorse for what he did, and has used his time in prison to earn his high school diploma and take college courses, and even write poetry, Khamisa said.
Forgiveness, Khamisa said, is a “selfish act,” because without it, he would have remained a victim throughout his life and been unable to live a happy, productive life.
“You cannot destroy darkness with darkness… you cannot destroy hate with hate, only love can do that. You can’t destroy violence with violence, you need non-violence,” he said. “Violence is always the wrong response, it always makes things worse, not better.”
Nine months after his son’s death, Khamisa founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to ending youth violence.
Targeting middle school youth, the program includes school assemblies and non-violence curriculum, in which former gang members are often featured to help dissuade children from joining gangs. The program also provides youth mentoring and organizes community service projects.
Khamisa said the program has shown results in the schools where it has been implemented, from reducing the presences of gangs to lower suspension and expulsion rates and higher academic achievement.
With more resources, he said, the program could be replicated in schools across the country, he said.
Children see the pain of violence and loss etched on the faces of Khamisa and Felix, which they don’t get from violent video games or movies, Khamisa said.
“This is real. It puts a face on violence,” he said.
The foundation has also created videos which can be shown to schoolchildren when the two men are not available for a personal appearance.
In an interview before his talk, Khamisa addressed the debate over gun violence — and how to reduce it — that has emerged in the wake of December’s deadly school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Khamisa stressed that he was speaking as a U.S. citizen and victim of violence, not as a representative of the foundation, which does not take political stands.
He said cheap handguns, known as midnight or Saturday night specials, should be banned along with machine guns and assault weapons.
While he supports the right of people to hunt, he said, he would prefer that the rifles be kept at hunting clubs, which is the practice in Europe.
He also advocated for extensive background checks and registration of all handguns, the way cars are registered at the DMV.
Handguns, he said, “should be under lock and key, not loaded handguns on nightstands and coffee tables,” he said.
Khamisa’s talk was part of the regular monthly program of the Rancho Santa Fe Democratic Club, which was formed in 2007 in the run-up to President Barack Obama’s first campaign.
At the time, residents of the conservative enclave of Rancho Santa Fe were reluctant to admit they were Democrats, said club president Michael Gelfand.
Since then, the club has become much more active, supporting candidates at the national, state and local levels, such as newly elected county supervisor Dave Roberts, the first Democrat to sit on the board in nearly 20 years.
Local Democrats are now willing to put bumper stickers on their cars and plant yard signs for their candidates, Gelfand said.
“They’ve come out of the closet,” he joked. “They’re admitting they’re Democrats and proud of it.”
Khamisa has received over 65 humanitarian awards from people and organizations as diverse as the Dalai Llama, the White House, the Children’s Defense Fund, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Child Safety Network. Khamisa was recently appointed as President of the Child Safety Network in CSN’s continuing mission to make America a safer place for children. He is also the founder and National Director of the Constant and Never Ending Improvement program.
In June 2004, Khamisa participated in the Synthesis Dialogues, with His Holiness the Dalai Llama, held at the Pope’s summer residence in Castelgandolfo, Italy. Azim’s work has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, People Magazine, U.S.A. Today, Oprah Magazine, NBC’s Today Show, Nightly News, CBS’s Early Morning Show and KPBS’s Fresh Air.