Last week I had the privilege to hear an exceptionally powerful talk by Azim Khamisa — a father who lost his only son to gang violence 17 years ago and who I first met in America seven years ago. It is a terrible irony that Azim left Kenya trying to escape the violence of Idi Amin only to have his son die on the streets of an American city that he had picked for him. Azim begins his story at the moment of hearing news of his son’s murder at the hands of 14-year-old Tony Hicks, describing how “as a nuclear bomb went off in my heart, I realized that if I did not forgive I would remain a victim all my life.” Even in those early hours he knew that revenge was a precursor of every new act of violence.
Azim was in London to share his story with the Youth Justice Board. In the years since his son’s death he has spoken in front of a million young people, hoping to put a face on violence and demonstrate how the trauma of loss can — when transformed by forgiveness — become a movement for change. Azim has been awarded over 60 peace prizes and soon after his son’s murder founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TFK) — an organization committed to stopping children from killing children.
Had we been in America, Azim would most likely have been standing next to Ples Felix, the grandfather and legal guardian of his son’s killer. The two men’s paths collided in 1995 when Tony — initiated into gang culture from the age of eleven — shot dead Tariq, who had been lured to a bogus address while delivering pizzas. Over the years Azim and Ples have become close friends, bound together by shared heartbreak, as well as a common commitment to the principles of non violence, empathy and forgiveness. “Who is the enemy?” asks Azim, “the 14-year-old who killed my son or societal forces that forced Tony to join a gang? There were victims at both ends of the gun.”
He first met his son’s killer when Tony was 19. Tony is now 31, having been the first 14-year-old to stand trial as an adult in the state of California. He still has another 15 years to serve but Azim sees no point in him languishing in jail and is determined to get him out as soon as he can. His plan is to have Tony work for him. “I could take the position that Tony should hang from the highest pole and die,” he continues, “but how would that help anyone? On the other hand, if we save him, and get him out there saving others, then he becomes our most powerful weapon against youth violence because he’s been there and done it.” Redemption is a big part of the TKF ethos. Many of the young gang members they work with must volunteer in the community as a way of repairing the damage and helping prevent others from committing similar offences.
The work Azim does to ‘save’ violent young people is all about transformation or what he calls change at a soulular level — a term he coined to express deep, sustainable inner change. As a Sufi Muslim he realized his math and finance degrees were useless when his son died and that it was his spiritual life which saved him. Wary of the politics and dogma of organized religion, he prefers to talk about spirituality and is convinced that encouraging young people to respect and embrace different wisdom traditions can give them an inner resource that will sustain them through hard times. It’s what he calls our ‘internal navigation system’ — a spiritual life that once tapped into can allow for real shifts to take place.
As founder of The Forgiveness Project, I have spoken with dozens of people who have suffered unspeakable horror like Azim and heard many of them describe how it was forgiveness that was able to open a path to the future and forge a way through. Some have described this ‘way through’ in terms of life No.1 (up until the tragedy), and life No.2 (after the tragedy). Forgiveness seems to be a way of rediscovering meaning in life and embracing the narrative of hope as opposed to becoming stuck in the story of trauma. Aqueela Sherrils, a former LA gang member and now an advocate for non-violence who also lost his son to murder, talks about “finding the gift in the wound”; Katy Hutchison promised her four-year-old twins on the day her husband was murdered that “underneath the horror of what had just happened we would find a gift.” Azim, like them, is convinced: “In every conflict there is an opportunity to create love and unity. If you stay in resentment who are you hurting?”