By Kim Cromwell
Losing an only son is devastating.
It is spiritually ungodly, emotionally unloving
and viscerally paralyzing. It is like a nuclear
bomb detonating inside of you. However,
if you survive the devastation, among the debris
you see many paths. I chose the path closest
to my heart. As a result of that choice I am
at a meaningful place. I am closer to my heart
than I ever remember being. It is also
the way I communicate with my son daily.
—from Azim Khamisa’s journal
Azim Khamisa’s only son, Tariq, was gunned down by 14-year-old Tony Hicks on January 21, 1995. Tariq, 20, a San Diego State University student, was delivering pizzas to earn extra money for his education when he was ambushed by four gang members.
But Azim Khamisa’s anger was not directed at Hicks. It was directed at society.
“How is it that our great country and culture has produced an environment where children too young to have a driver’s license are not too young to have guns?” he asks. “What good is it if we spend billions in Desert Storm and in conquering space, when every day in our own backyard our defenseless children are being wiped out in a frenzy of bizarre violence? Why is it that this intelligent, most powerful nation in the world cannot get its priorities right?”
Out of the tragedy has emerged the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. Its mission: to stop children from killing children. “I founded TKF to help turn my grief into positive action,” says Khamisa. “Working against the forces that resulted in Tariq’s death brings quality and purpose back into my life.”
Believing there were two victims—one at each end of the gun—Khamisa reached out to the Hicks family. And so began a unique alliance between a man whose son was murdered and a man whose grandson did the murdering. Hicks’ grandfather and guardian, Ples Felix, began to work for TKF.
In its first year, the foundation has taken on a life of
its own. “It’s not just my message anymore,” says Khamisa. Today, TKF is a fully functional nonprofit organization, working out of a downtown office donated by the law firm of Hillyer & Irwin.
A look into the problem of teen violence reveals staggering statistics. Khamisa found 50 teenage gangs in San Diego, each having up to 50 members—and he learned that teen violence between 1984 and 1994 had risen 850%. “The members of these teenage gangs are victims, just as Tariq,” he says.
One of the goals of the foundation is to increase public awareness of its mission, and to that extent “we have achieved a landslide,” Khamisa says. Articles have appeared in San Diego Magazine (“The San Diego 50: People To Watch,” January 1996), the San Diego Union-Tribune, the New York Times, USA Today and People. Ongoing coverage by local TV news stations resulted in appearances by Khamisa and Felix on NBC’s Today Show and Real Life. Parade magazine and ABC’s 48 Hours plan stories on TKF in 1997.
Speaking engagements for Khamisa have steadily increased throughout the foundation’s first year. One speech that attracted nationwide media attention, via C-SPAN, was given at the Stand for Children rally. Sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund and organized by Marian Wright Edelman, the event attracted 200,000 people to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Khamisa also traveled to Tulsa to keynote a conference of the National Organization of Victim Assistance.
When the front-page story of Hicks’ conviction and sentencing appeared in the local paper, it prompted a call for help from Carol Roblauskas, a counselor at Alice Birney Elementary School.
“I contacted TKF because Tony Hicks and Antoine Pittman [the gang leader who gave Hicks the order to shoot] had both gone to school here,” Roblauskas says. “When Tony was sentenced, there was a lot of confusion. The kids remembered Tony as a nice kid—and here he was on the front page of the newspaper, being sentenced to 25 years to life for killing someone.”
TKF’s response was immediate. It held its first Violence Impact Forum at the school just two weeks after receiving Roblauskas’ call.
Comprehensive and powerful, the program included opening remarks by Khamisa and Felix, a question-and-answer segment with an ex-gang member and a letter and a videotaped message from Hicks.
“He talked about being in jail, lying against the cold concrete wall at night and crying—wondering if he’s dead or alive and asking God for forgiveness,” says Brian Horsley, TKF’s assistant executive director.
“We never had to deal with what kids today deal with on a daily basis,” says Gayle Johnson-Cox, a San Diego City Schools resource teacher from the Department of Race, Human Relations and Guidance. “We couldn’t even have conceived of it. Violence is their reality.”
The forum was designed to tell kids who they can turn to, how to deal with peer pressure to join gangs, about the devastating consequences of violence—and to let them know they have choices and don’t have to choose violence. According to Horsley, what had the most impact was the discussion with the ex-gang member. “The kids had so many questions, we couldn’t get to them all,” he says.
Children asked: “What should I do if someone tells me to kill someone or they’ll kill me?” “How do you get out of a gang?”
“A question that really got to me,” Horsley remembers, “was ‘Why did you wait until someone got murdered to come and talk to us?’”
One youngster, whose feet didn’t even touch the floor as he sat in his chair, asked, “Do they feed you in jail?”
“Yeah, they feed you,” replied the ex-gang member. “But it’s worse than cafeteria food.”
“The program did an excellent job of meeting the kids’ needs,” Roblauskas says. “It said the right things and answered the right questions.”
Cox agrees. “The kids were right there listening, actively interested,” she says. “And letters from the kids later indicated that the forum had made a substantial difference in the way they viewed violence.”
“We don’t want to lecture at kids. We want kids speaking with kids,” says Horsley. There are so many things that can derail a program like this, he adds. “There can be a generation gap, a culture gap, a language gap, a clothing gap, a respect gap...”
The forum at Birney School was the foundation’s first. But more are planned in 1997. And in refining the programs, TKF takes its cues from kids. Horsley says next time they will get the youngsters involved with questions and answers sooner and include a follow-up writing project. He explains, “There’s a cognitive process when you put your feelings to paper that isn’t expressed in conversation or anything else.”
TKF was invited to apply for a grant through the federal Office for Victims of Crime. Along with its application went letters of support from the offices of San Diego’s mayor and district attorney. If approved, the grant will provide the foundation with the money it needs to run the 10-school program slated for next year.
“The schools don’t have any funds for our program,” says Horsley, “but what they can do and have agreed to do is give us access to the schools that are deemed by them to be most in need of our services.” According to him, what little money has been spent on identifying the causes of youth violence and preventing it has been spent on young people who have done something wrong—either rehabilitating them, getting them jobs or putting them in jail. “The kids who have been doing the right thing have been completely ignored,” he says.
“The lasting solutions aren’t going to come from warehousing more and more kids,” Horsley adds. “There’s always a place for punishment, but there’s got to be a place for prevention, too.”
District Attorney Paul Pfingst, who says he has seen hundreds of thousands of homicide cases, is in the business of crime and punishment. How effective does he think the foundation can be?
“I think it’s exploring its potential—and I wouldn’t put a ceiling on it,” Pfingst says. “This is the only case I’ve ever seen where the families of the victim and the defendant have united afterward, even to chat amicably, much less join in a strategic alliance to try to make something good come out of the tragedy. It’s a remarkable event.”
In September, Khamisa and Felix each received the Blue Knight Award from the San Diego Crime Commission for their efforts.
It is Azim Khamisa’s hope that once Tony Hicks has been rehabilitated and served his time, he will work for the foundation. “In fact,” says Khamisa, “he’s already doing that, with the tape he made and the letter he wrote to the Birney School kids. Kids are getting the message —they don’t want to end up like him.”
Khamisa’s foundation remains focused through the vision of its originator: “Every time you talk one youngster out of committing homicide, you save two children.”
The Tariq Khamisa Foundation, 550 West C Street, Suite 1700, San Diego, CA 92101-3568; 277-5700; toll free: 888-HELPTKF (888-435-7853).