20th January 2021

Azim Khamisa on grieving, his spiritual practice and the importance of asking for forgiveness

Marina Cantacuzino talks to Azim Khamisa who founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation after his only son, Tariq, was shot and killed while delivering pizzas in San Diego in 1995. Tariq’s killer, Tony Hicks, was 14-years-old at the time and has only recently been released from prison. Azim has spent the past 25 years talking about forgiveness and tirelessly working to prevent youth violence in America.

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Show Notes

Following the murder of his only son in 1995, Azim Khamisa founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, which started a subsequent forgiveness movement that has reached millions. He is a published author of 5 books, international inspirational speaker, a thought leader and consultant. He is a master teacher on building spiritual resiliency and forgiveness.

Read Azim’s story

Transcript

Marina: Welcome to the F Word Podcast – a podcast series which examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through. I will be talking fortnightly to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.

So, for this episode of this F Word Podcast I am going to be talking to a father who has not only forgiven his son’s killer but also done everything in his power to help others to deal with their own pain and trauma. Azim Khamisa is a thought leader, peace activist, prolific author and international speaker who has dedicated the past 25 years of his life to the important work of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation.

So welcome, Azim it is wonderful to see you and thank you for being a guest on the FWord Podcast.

Azim: Good to see you. Thanks for having me on your Podcast.

Marina: Shall we start, Azim, right at the beginning with Tariq, your son, because one of the things that has always moved me hearing your story is how quickly you came to a point of some kind of resolution about it. Let’s hear a little about Tariq and what happened, if you don’t mind just starting there.

Azim: Sure. So, Tariq was my only son. He was a good kid. He was a student at San Diego State University. He was a good writer and good photographer who was blessed with a great sense of humour. His favourite hero was Ghandi. His dream was someday to work for National Geographic and become a journalist. He worked on Fridays and Saturdays as a pizza delivery man while he was going to college to earn some extra money.

He was lured to a bogus address in San Diego so he got in his car and got to the apartment building and knocked on many doors trying to find out who had ordered the pizzas. Of course, nobody had and he came back to his car and put the pizzas in the trunk of his car and as he was about to leave the scene of the crime he was accosted by four youth gang members. Three of them were 14 years old and the leader of the gang was an 18 years old who handed a 9mm hand gun in a gang initiation ritual which came through the driver’s side window.

My son was already in his car trying to leave the scene of the crime but it was fatal and as the Coroner explained to me later that the bullet followed a perfect path. “A perfect path”, I queried. I thought that was an interesting choice of words but he was very quick to tell me he said, “Mr Khamisa. I am not trying to be insensitive. We don’t see a path like this very often and what it means in my lingo is that it destroyed all the vital organs in your son’s body and Tariq died drowning in his own blood a couple of minutes later over a lousy Pizza at the young age of 20”.

I had just returned from a business trip to Mexico so when the Homicide came to my house I wasn’t there and they left a little card which I saw the next morning and there was a note from Homicide that said we are trying to locate Tariq’s family, please give us a call. I called them on the phone. Sergeant Lambert, I remember her name, and she told me on the phone what had happened to Tariq. Because I didn’t believe it because I think as a parent it is very difficult to hear your children die before you do. My immediate knee jerk reaction was like a mistaken identity.

So I quickly hung up on her because he had just moved in with his girlfriend, Jennifer, they had got engaged, into their own apartment and called his apartment fulling expecting him to pick up the phone. Of course, he didn’t, Jennifer did and she was just sobbing on the phone and that is when it hit me.

I was in my kitchen. I lost strength in both of my legs and as I collapsed to the floor I hit my head against the refrigerator and curled up into a ball. I don’t have the words to describe how excruciatingly painful that experience was for me but I had never in my life had felt pain like that. It was literally like a nuclear bomb that went off in your heart.

The pain was so excruciating that I remember leaving my body and I have since read that victims that suffer deep trauma often do leave their body because you can’t be in your body. I practice as a Sufi Muslim. I used to meditate an hour a day when Tariq was alive. Today my practice is two hours a day. I believe in God and I believe I left my body and went into a loving embrace of God. I don’t recall how long I was gone but I remember being held in this embrace and then when the explosion subsided God sent me back into my body with the wisdom that there are victims at both ends of the gun.

Marina: That’s extraordinary. That’s like within minutes, it sounds like.

Azim: Yes, absolutely and I made some really difficult calls to Tariq’s mother and how do you tell a mother that she is never going to see her son again and all of those gut-wrenching excruciating calls. I then called my best friends because I live by myself and they said don’t do anything, we will be there and sure enough my best friend and his wife were there within an hour and a half of me finding out and then my best friend’s wife went to get Tariq’s fiancée.

I was alone with my best friend and the first thing in his mouth was that whoever these kids are that killed Tariq I hope that they fry in hell. And I looked at him and I told him “I don’t feel that way. I see that there are victims at both ends of the gun”. I remember he broke down and cried and he said, “Azim, where do you get the strength. If somebody took my son, Adam’s life, not only would I want the killer but the whole clan.”

Marina: Was he impressed, moved or angry with you for feeling that way?

Azim: He was very moved, emotional and he is not a violent person.

Marina: But his reaction was more like you would expect.

Azim: Exactly, I never went there and I think what I have learnt in the aftermath that sometimes in deep trauma and tragedy there is a spark of clarity. It didn’t come from my intellect. I don’t think us mortals are capable of that. It didn’t come from my loving heart. It was a download from a higher power.

Marina: And also a survival mechanism. I mean, without that who knows where you would have gone.

Azim: Exactly and I think that looking back at it that download that I got from the higher power, 9 months later led me to start the Foundation having learnt the challenges of youth violence in America is pretty bad.

Marina: The Foundation, which is in your son’s name?

Azim: Yes, correct. 9 months after he died having learnt of the plight of kids killing kids which is a huge problem in America. I still weep when I think about Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, 20 first graders.

Marina: Yes, Young children 6-7 year olds.

Azim: Babies were gunned down and machine gunned fired. In the richest country in the world!

Marina: By the way Sandy Hook claimed 26 lives in total, 20 first graders plus 6 staff members and it remains the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary or high school in US history. If you are interested in reading a story that will chime with much of what Azim says, check out the story of Scarlett Lewis on the Forgiveness Project website. Scarlett’s 6 year old son, Jesse, was murdered in that terrible massacre in 2012.

Azim: So I felt as an American citizen that I must take my share of the responsibility for the bullet that took my son’s life because it was fired by an American child and I am a first generation American citizen. I was born in Kenya of Eastern routes and emigrated to the US to get away from the violence of Idi Amin because we were a minority and targeted as a result, thinking my children would be safer in America so it was very ironic that he died in a country and city that I had picked for him.

But I felt that losing so many young people I had to do something about it so when I started the Foundation, of course, it was to honour my son and my initial mission was to stop kids from killing kids. I started with a very simple premise that violence is a learned behaviour. No child was born violent. Tony, who killed my son wasn’t born violent.

Marina: With Tony who was 14 years old when he took your son’s life, he went to prison soon after, as a child still, and he has only very recently been released at the age of 39 and that is a long time in prison. Many people who lose loved ones say the longer someone is in prison the greater the value of my loved one’s life. Did you ever feel that? Did you ever feel, yes, he needs to go to prison? He needs to learn a prison. He needs to stay in there for decades?

Azim: No.

Marina: Never?

Azim: He was the first 14 year old to be tried as an adult. They had just reduced the law where from 16 to 14 that a capital case like murder, they could essentially judge him as an adult so that then they can give him a life sentence. Because, if he had been judged as a juvenile he would have been out when he was 25. I was in favour of the most lenient sentence for him because at 14 you are not an adult but it was not in my hands because it was the State of California against Tony Hicks.

So, I thought it was way too long for a 14 year old to be put away for that long. I finally met him when he was 19. I started the Foundation, forgave him and then soon after I founded the Foundation, I reached out to the grandfather and guardian of my son’s killer.

Marina: Hang on lets back up there. You just say started the Foundation and forgave him. Some people would just fall off their seats when they hear you saying that. You must have struggled to forgive him. You can’t just forgive like that, can you?

Azim: As I said, I saw that there were victims at both ends of the gun. He was not the enemy.

Marina: Who was the enemy, then?

Azim: Well I saw that the enemy as societal forces that forces many young men, especially young men of colour, to fall through the crack and then choose lives of crime and gangs and drugs and alcohol and weapons as he was. He was radicalised, much like we see radicalised terrorism. So that the enemy was the societal forces and I felt that we as a country had not done enough to make sure young people like Tony don’t fall through the crack.

And, then soon after I started the Foundation I reached out to the grandfather of my son’s killer with the idea that “I am not here screaming revenge or retribution, rather, I see we both lost a son” because Tony lived with his grandfather and calls him “Daddy”. “I can’t bring my son back from the dead and there is nothing you can do to get Tony out of adult prison. And I started this Foundation with the very lofty mission of stopping kids from killing kids and the real reason I am here is to ask for your help because I can’t do this by myself. It behooves us to work together because it was your grandson that killed my son. Will you help me?”

He is African American. He is Christian. I am Muslim and Eastern and we are together 25 years later as brothers. He was very quick to take my hand of forgiveness so it took me five years eventually go to visit Tony.

Marina: How was that meeting?

Azim: it was very cathartic for both of us. I remember meditating several thousand hours to get the courage to do this and I recognised that for me to complete my journey of forgiveness, I eventually had to come eyeball to eyeball with Tony. I asked the grandfather, his name is Ples Felix, to go with me because it was the first time I met Tony. I also told him I would like you to introduce me to Tony but then I need some alone time with him because you are his grandfather and I have some tough questions of him and he will be defensive.

Ples was very gracious and he left us alone for an hour and a half and Tony and I talked man to man. I could tell that my forgiveness had shifted him because he was well-mannered. He was articulate. He was remorseful plus I knew Tony was not going to repeat that behaviour.

Marina. Now this reminds me of Episode 4 of the FWord Podcast with Jacob Dunne who was convicted of manslaughter for killing a young man and he talks about the huge responsibility he feels to the family of his victim because his transformation has been so helpful and so meaningful for them. I am not saying that those who hurt others should live without this pressure to change. I mean in many ways this is really the very least they should do but sometimes I wonder how that plays out. I also realise that it is an incredibly difficult and courageous direction to take to promise to change yourself for the sake of your victims and I think it proves, to me at least, that entering into this transformative process is much harder than say serving a very long prison sentence without ever embracing issues of repentance and responsibility.

Anyway, I then asked Azim about this issue of offenders asking victims for forgiveness.

Did he ask for your forgiveness?

Azim: Yes, he had already asked for my forgiveness in the parole hearing.

Marina: Did you find that healing for yourself?

Azim: Absolutely.

Marina: Why?

Azim: Because I think that I had already forgiven him before he asked for my forgiveness but him asking for my forgiveness was very meaningful.

Marina: Because you knew it was genuine, he was genuinely remorseful. The reason I asked that is I am very interested in this asking for forgiveness because one of the storytellers that we work with at The Forgiveness Project is a former paramilitary from Northern Ireland who killed somebody when he was a young man. He says he would never ask for forgiveness because that just puts an extra onus of responsibility on the victim and he doesn’t feel that is fair. But it is interesting because when I hear you I can absolutely understand why that helped you because it showed you just how genuine his sorrow was for what he had done because you don’t ask for forgiveness unless you feel you have done something terribly wrong, do you?

Azim: Exactly, no, because at the end of the day we have all harmed people as well and that can become a festering wound and just like the offender needs to heal that wound by self-forgiveness that part of that process is to ask for forgiveness, whether it is granted or not, I think it is important to ask but to ask with that sincerity where you really mean it and also to be clear that this is something that he would never ever repeat.

In that first meeting there was some questions in my mind, there were holes in the story which I was able to complete. The big takeaway and the big blessing is that at one point in the hour and a half we locked eyeballs. I am looking in his eyes and he is looking in my eyes and we kept that glance for what seemed a long time. And, I am looking in his eyes trying to find a murderer and I didn’t. I was able to clank through his eyes and touch his humanity that I got that the spark in him was no different than the spark in me or you. I wasn’t expecting that.

He was a likeable kid so at that point I told him that you know I have forgiven you because I have been working with your grandfather for a good four years. I also want you to know that when you come out of prison you can join us and you have a job at the Foundation and you can come work with your grandfather and me. After about an hour and a half or two hours I left and I remember the bounce in my stride was a lot more bouncy than the one I walked in with because it was like a freeing and I knew that I had at that point completed my journey of forgiveness.

But the next day, the grandfather called me because I hadn’t realised that it was a similar cathartic transformation on Tony because he is a good-looking young man in an adult prison – a little like Zeus – a target. He said he wanted to tell you that I am going to die in prison. I am not going to make it but when you gave him some hope and some love, he is totally transformed.

I have been in his life for the last 20 years and he is now 39 years old. I met him at 19. I have given him a lot of books to read. He is very well read. He wrote a forward to my trilogy. He’s read the Bible, the Koran and the Torah.

Now that he is out we see him every month and I have been trying to get him out which was very complicated but sure enough his parole hearing was late 2018 and I was there advocating him for his release. It was granted based on the fact that I told the Commissioner that he has a lot of work to do, but not in prison but on the outside, because the Foundation is at schools all the time and I think you can see the power of him on stage saying, “when I was 11 I joined a gang and when I was 14 I killed Mr Khamisa’s son and I wish I could turn the clock back” and he genuinely wants to do that.

Marina: It is early days though. Isn’t it.

Azim: Yes, of course it is. Finally he was released into a halfway house and then moved in with his grandfather and he now has got a job. He’s sort of doing blocks with the Foundation but he is not quite ready to go on stage yet, no.

Marina: You speak about him with real fondness in your voice. Are you fond of him?

Azim: I am, yes. I have very high hopes for him. I think that he will save many, many more kids because I can’t bring my son back and really I have taken the fatherly role with him. He didn’t have a father. He was born to a 15 year old which was the grandfather’s daughter and the father shunned him every time he met him so he grew up essentially with a 15 year old mother. His grandfather was in the military and got Tony when he was 9 years old.

Marina: Because, when you first spoke about him you said that your realisation that there were victims at both ends of the gun. Now that is an understanding but it is not forgiveness, is it? Forgiveness I think requires some kind of compassion.

Azim: I think it is compassion to see that. I think the pre-cursor for forgiveness is compassion. A pre-cursor of compassion is empathy and a pre-cursor for empathy is to get to know the person because you can’t have empathy with somebody you don’t know.

I know everything there is to know about Tony, his entire life history. Sometimes I wonder if I had grown up just like he had, lived in South Central Los Angeles, his favourite uncle was gunned down when he was 8 years old, seduced by his uncle’s girlfriend, a tough life, would I have made the same choice. He joined a gang when he was 11 and then to prove himself to the gang he shot my son at the age of 14.

There is a great quote from Gandhi, “Hate the sin, love the sinner”. I think at some level we have all harmed. We are all fallible. We are all humans and that to have that level of empathy I think one really needs to understand the other person. The Dalai Lama goes on to say, “You can learn a lot from your enemy”.

Marina: I think that is true. I often say that curiosity is a key ingredient of forgiveness as well. I think there has to be because if you think you have got everyone figured out there is no way to go with that. Black and white thinking is so linear, isn’t it? Forgivers are flexible thinkers who know life is morally complicated. Even good people do bad things and bad things happen to good people.

Azim: Absolutely. I think that understanding is very important. What you just said demonstrates empathy and you have essentially defined what empathy is. So, I think that you want to live there.

Marina: You said that in every conflict there is the opportunity for love and unity and you have just explained how that is for you. But, how do you say that to someone who is desperately grieving and tormented and anguished and angry?

Azim: I think you have to time it. I think grieving is medicine. There is a good adage from the Turkish culture. “That he who conceals his grief does not find a remedy for it”. So, I think that you have to grieve and I did too. It took me a good three and half years and I think at some point you have to transmute that grief into action otherwise you remain a victim. So, what I saw in this tragedy is that I did not want to go through life as a victim.

I had a very full life when Tariq was alive. I worked in international financial services, travelled the world, made good money, had a good social life and then I had no life and I have a very good life now, different, but very fulfilling. The only way you can move and transmute that pain is through the process of forgiveness because that transmutes it into taking that grief and putting it into better action.

There is a great quote from Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore, he is an Indian Philosopher. He says,

“I dreamt life was joy. I woke up and I found out that life was service.

I acted, behold service is joy”

Marina: I love that.

Azim: I think that is what I try and tell people. Take your time to grieve and the next step is giving up your resentment through meditation and empathy, through to setting an intention and then to reach out, which I did, to the offender. Not everybody has to reach out to the person who murdered their child but there is a lot of grief in our families, father, son, mother, daughter, ex-wives, ex-husbands, business partners. Sometimes you have to reach out to a person you actually love.

But the point is that it takes time and there is a process which I actually do teach in my two-day workshop and it is really freeing for those people who actually do get it for a victim to eventually heal. I don’t know if there is any better way than to forgive.

Marina: I have heard you speak in schools and workshops and to policymakers. Everybody is always very affected by what you say. I have never seen any expressions on people’s faces of negativity or querying anything you have done. Is that the case, or, have you received some negative responses occasionally?

Azim: I don’t believe that I have ever had a pushback except for one that I remember which was very early, it was a couple of years after Tariq died. It was at The World Forum which was held in San Francisco. Gorbachev and Desmond Tutu were the two co-chairs and we were in a round table with about 25 people and of course we had to tell our story.

The lady that spoke after me had lost a son in the conflict in Ireland and she said forgiveness may be your option but it is not my option and she was very much about revenge, very much about wanting to see this person suffer or die, very animated and very loud. I was tongue-tied because it was too early.

But the person that sat next to me, finally it was his turn to speak. He spoke after me and after her and he did a great job because he said, “I understand your heart was broken because you lost a son, but don’t you think Azim’s heart was broken? Sure it was broken the same way as yours. But here you see a phoenix rising from the ashes that out of all this devastation something positive has manifested and that is now helping make a better society.”

Marina: I remember you saying once when we were doing a workshop together and you said to everybody, “A broken heart is an open heart” and that really landed with every single person in the room. I still think about that because I think it’s true.

Azim: I think that the work we are doing with victims is to get them to see that because once you get that the “broken heart is an open heart” then gentle transformations begin to manifest because It takes an open heart to receive and send love and empathy and compassion and forgiveness. We are very quick in our society to judge and close our hearts. You cannot get to forgiveness and compassion with a closed heart.

I work very hard to leave my heart open and there is a great quote from Rumi, that says, “God will break your heart over and over and over and over and over and over again until it stays open”

One of the biggest impediments of forgiveness is judgement. A closed heart judges. An open heart never judges because it is inclusive.

Marina: That is not say that you can’t fight for justice and make judgements about unfairness and abuse, is it?

Azim: No. I think part of the justice process is obviously to make sure that you do all you can to restore the victim to the extent possible. You can’t bring my son back by working with grandfather and now with working with Tony. By using the principles of Restorative Justice it’s meaningful. Less kids are ending up dead or ending up in prison.

But the second part of justice is to bring the offender back into society as a functioning and a contributing member which we have done with Tony. Whilst they have shifted and transformed they are applied experts. We have used offenders. They are very passionate about making sure that other young people don’t fall in their former footsteps.

And the third part is to heal the community because crime happens in the context of community and the Foundation working in schools we see a lot of drop of violence not just in the school but in that entire community. So I think that part of social justice is to have the mind-set that in every crime there is an opportunity to make a better society.

Marina: What you do with the Foundation obviously really feeds your soul. It’s terribly important. You are doing a lot of good work with others. But, it all has come about through the death of your son and I just wonder how you square that really because obviously you would much, much preferred that had never ever happened?

Azim: Yes, well, you know, I think we all have a spiritual purpose. Sometimes it is complicated to know what that is. Not for me. The gift that my son gave me was to put me on to this work because I wouldn’t be doing this had he not been so tragically taken away. For a 22 year journey that is very dark which started with murder but ended in peace, a level of peace that comes through my work that I never had before.

Marina: Thank you, Azim. It has been great catching up with you. You are always so inspiring. I learn a lot from you every time we speak. I want to say thank you so much for coming in and being on the FWord Podcast.

Azim: You are welcome and thanks for doing all the work you are doing. You have always been somebody that I have admired and respected and I always consider you as part of family.

Marina. Thank you.

I think it is a very fitting ending to my interview with Azim to share with you a trailer for one of my favourite podcasts, Justice, hosted by Edwina Grosvenor, a patron and long-time supporter of The Forgiveness Project.

Welcome to Justice, a Podcast Series, brought to you by the Charity, One Small Thing. I am Edwina Grosvenor, prison philanthropist and founder of One Small Thing.

Our mission is to reduce the number of women within the justice system and to ensure that services that support residents and those who have left the system are informed about, responsive to and provide specific help to heal from trauma. Essentially we want to shift the conversation from “What’s wrong with them?” to “What’s happened to them?

I talk to guests who all have different relationships and experiences with the justice system and who generally have quite a lot to say about what could and should be done to make the system work better.

Join me in learning more about justice available on all podcast platforms.

Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. This Podcast is the last episode in the current series but do lookout for Series 2 coming soon and finally, to dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.

I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. All these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hate and division towards empathy and understanding.

So, if you have enjoyed this podcast please do consider donating even just the smallest amount to help us to continue our wok. All details of how to do this again are on the show notes page of our website.

But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.

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