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TEDWomen 2017

Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix: What comes after tragedy? Forgiveness

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On one awful night in 1995, Ples Felix's 14-year-old grandson murdered Azim Khamisa's son in a gang initiation fueled by drugs, alcohol and a false sense of belonging. The deadly encounter sent Khamisa and Felix down paths of deep meditation, to forgive and to be forgiven -- and in an act of bravery and reconciliation, the two men met and forged a lasting bond. Together, they've used their story as an outline for a better, more merciful society, where victims of tragedy can grow and heal. Prepare to be moved by their unimaginable story. "Peace is possible," Khamisa says. "How do I know that? Because I am at peace."

- Author, peace activist
Azim Khamisa speaks to students and adults on nonviolence, forgiveness and peace-building, and he is a founder of two nonprofit organizations that target youth violence. Full bio

- Peace activist
Ples Felix is a leader in the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, dedicated to helping stop youth violence. Full bio

Azim Khamisa: We humans
have many defining moments in our lives.
00:13
Sometimes these moments are joyous,
00:18
and sometimes they are heartbreaking,
00:20
tragic.
00:23
But at these defining moments,
if we are able to make the right choice,
00:25
we literally manifest a miracle
00:30
in us and others.
00:33
My only son Tariq, a university student,
00:37
kind, generous, a good writer,
a good photographer,
00:39
had aspirations
to work for National Geographic,
00:44
engaged to a beautiful lady,
00:47
worked as a pizza deliveryman
on Fridays and Saturdays.
00:49
He was lured to a bogus address
00:54
by a youth gang.
00:56
And in a gang initiation,
00:59
a 14-year-old shot and killed him.
01:01
The sudden, senseless death
01:06
of an innocent, unarmed human being;
01:10
the overwhelming grief of a family;
01:15
the total confusion as you try
to absorb a new, hideous reality.
01:18
Needless to say it brought
my life to a crashing halt.
01:25
One of the hardest things
I've ever had to do
01:29
was to call his mother,
who lived in a different city.
01:31
How do you tell a mother
she's never going to see her son again,
01:34
or hear him laugh,
01:37
or give him a hug?
01:39
I practice as a Sufi Muslim.
01:42
I meditate two hours a day.
01:44
And sometimes,
01:47
in deep trauma and deep tragedy,
01:48
there is a spark of clarity.
01:52
So what I downloaded in my meditation
01:55
is that there were victims
at both ends of the gun.
01:58
It's easy to see that my son
was a victim of the 14-year-old,
02:02
a little bit complicated to see
that he was a victim of American society.
02:06
And that begs the question,
well, who is American society?
02:12
Well, it's you and me,
02:15
because I don't believe
that society is just happenstance.
02:16
I think we are all responsible
for the society we've created.
02:20
And children killing children
is not a mark of a civil society.
02:25
So nine months after Tariq died,
02:30
I started the Tariq Khamisa Foundation
02:33
and our mandate
at the Tariq Khamisa Foundation
02:35
is to stop kids from killing kids
02:38
by breaking the cycle of youth violence.
02:41
And essentially we have three mandates.
02:43
Our first and foremost
is to save lives of children.
02:45
It's important to do.
We lose so many on a daily basis.
02:50
Our second mandate
02:54
is to empower the right choices
so kids don't fall through the cracks
02:57
and choose lives of gangs and crime
and drugs and alcohol and weapons.
03:01
And our third mandate is to teach
the principles of nonviolence,
03:06
of empathy, of compassion,
03:13
of forgiveness.
03:15
And I started with a very simple premise
03:17
that violence is a learned behavior.
03:19
No child was born violent.
03:21
If you accept that as a truism,
03:24
nonviolence can also be
a learned behavior,
03:27
but you have to teach it,
03:30
because kids are not going to learn that
03:31
through osmosis.
03:34
Soon after that,
I reached out to my brother here,
03:36
with the attitude
that we had both lost a son.
03:41
My son died.
03:43
He lost his grandson
to the adult prison system.
03:44
And I asked him to join me.
03:47
As you see, 22 years later,
we are still here together,
03:48
because I can't bring Tariq
back from the dead,
03:53
you can't take Tony out of prison,
03:55
but the one thing we can do
03:58
is make sure no other young people
in our community
04:00
end up dead or end up in prison.
04:03
With the grace of God,
04:06
the Tariq Khamisa Foundation
has been successful.
04:07
We have a safe school model
04:10
which has four different programs.
04:13
The first one is a live assembly
with Ples and me.
04:15
We are introduced,
04:18
this man's grandson killed this man's son,
04:20
and here they are together.
04:22
We have in-classroom curriculum.
04:23
We have an after school mentoring program,
and we create a peace club.
04:25
And I'm happy to share with you
04:29
that besides teaching
these principles of nonviolence,
04:31
we are able to cut suspensions
and expulsions by 70 percent,
04:35
which is huge.
04:40
(Applause)
04:42
Which is huge.
04:43
Five years after Tariq died,
04:45
and for me to complete
my journey of forgiveness,
04:47
I went to see the young man
who killed my son.
04:50
He was 19 years old.
04:53
And I remember that meeting
because we were --
04:55
he's 37, still in prison --
04:59
but at that first meeting,
we locked eyeballs.
05:01
I'm looking in his eyes,
he's looking in my eyes,
05:04
and I'm looking in his eyes
trying to find a murderer, and I didn't.
05:06
I was able to climb through his eyes
05:10
and touch his humanity that I got
05:13
that the spark in him
was no different than the spark in me
05:15
or anybody else here.
05:19
So I wasn't expecting that.
He was remorseful.
05:21
He was articulate. He was well-mannered.
05:23
And I could tell that my hand
of forgiveness had changed him.
05:25
So with that, please welcome
my brother, Ples.
05:31
(Applause)
05:33
Ples Felix: Tony is my one
and only daughter's one and only child.
05:38
Tony was born to my daughter,
05:44
who was 15 when she gave birth to Tony.
05:46
Mothering is the toughest
job on the planet.
05:50
There is no tougher job on the planet
than raising another human being
05:54
and making sure they're safe, secure
05:58
and well-positioned
to be successful in life.
06:01
Tony experienced a lot of violence
in his life as a young kid.
06:04
He saw one of his favorite cousins
06:09
be murdered in a hail
of automatic weapon fire
06:10
and gang involvement in Los Angeles.
06:13
He was very traumatized
in so many different ways.
06:15
Tony came to live with me.
06:19
I wanted to make sure
he had everything a kid needed
06:20
to be successful.
06:23
But on this particular evening,
06:27
after years of being with me
06:29
and struggling mightily
to try to be successful
06:30
and to live up to my expectations
of being a successful person,
06:33
on this one particular day,
Tony ran away from home that evening,
06:37
he went to be with people
he thought were his friends,
06:40
he was given drugs and alcohol
06:43
and he took them
06:45
because he thought
they would make him feel carefree.
06:46
But all it did was
to make his anxiety go higher
06:49
and to create a more ...
06:53
more deadly thinking on his part.
06:57
He was invited to a robbery,
07:01
he was given a 9mm handgun.
07:02
And at the presence
of an 18-year-old who commanded him
07:05
and two 14-year-old boys
he thought were his friends,
07:08
he shot and killed Tariq Khamisa,
07:11
this man's son.
07:14
There are no words, there are no words
07:19
that can express the loss of a child.
07:22
At my understanding
that my grandson was responsible
07:27
for the murder of this human being,
07:29
I went to the prayer closet,
like I was taught by my old folks,
07:31
and began to pray and meditate.
07:34
The one thing that Mr. Khamisa
and I have in common,
07:36
and we didn't know this,
besides being wonderful human beings,
07:39
is that we both meditate.
07:42
(Laughter)
07:43
It was very helpful for me
07:44
because it offered me an opportunity
to seek guidance and clarity
07:46
about how I wanted to be of support
of this man and his family in this loss.
07:49
And sure enough, my prayers were answered,
07:55
because I was invited
to a meeting at this man's house,
07:57
met his mother, his father,
08:00
his wife, his brother, met their family
08:03
and had a chance to be in the presence
of God-spirited people led by this man,
08:06
who in the spirit of forgiveness,
08:11
made way, made an opportunity for me
08:14
to be of value and to share with him
and to share with children
08:17
the importance of understanding the need
to be with a responsible adult,
08:20
focus on your anger
in a way that's healthy,
08:25
learn to meditate.
08:28
The programs that we have
in the Tariq Khamisa Foundation
08:29
provide so many tools
for the kids to put in their toolkit
08:32
so they could carry them
throughout their lives.
08:35
It's important that our children
understand that loving, caring adults
08:38
care for them and support them,
08:41
but it's also important
that our children learn to meditate,
08:43
learn to be peaceful,
08:47
learn to be centered
08:49
and learn to interact
with the other children
08:50
in a kind, empathetic
08:52
and wonderfully loving way.
08:54
We need more love in our society
08:56
and that's why we are here
to share the love with children,
08:58
because our children
will lead the way for us,
09:01
because all of us
will depend on our children.
09:04
As we grow older and retire,
they will take over this world for us,
09:07
so as much love as we teach them,
they will give it back to us.
09:10
Blessings. Thank you.
09:14
(Applause)
09:15
AK: So I was born in Kenya,
I was educated in England,
09:22
and my brother here is a Baptist.
09:26
I practice as a Sufi Muslim.
09:28
He's African American,
09:31
but I always tell him,
I'm the African American in the group.
09:32
I was born in Africa. You were not.
09:35
(Laughter)
09:37
And I naturalized as a citizen.
09:39
I'm a first-generation citizen.
09:41
And I felt that, as an American citizen,
09:43
I must take my share of the responsibility
09:47
for the murder of my son.
09:50
Why? Because it was fired
by an American child.
09:53
You could take the position,
he killed my one and only son,
09:57
he should be hung from the highest pole.
10:00
How does that improve society?
10:03
And I know you are probably wondering
what happened to that young man.
10:06
He's still in prison.
He just turned 37 on September 22,
10:10
but I have some good news.
10:15
We've been trying
to get him out for 12 years.
10:17
He finally will join us a year from now.
10:20
(Applause)
10:23
And I'm very excited to have him join us,
10:30
because I know we've saved him,
10:33
but he will save
tens of thousands of students
10:35
when he shares his testimony
10:38
in schools that we are present at
on a regular basis.
10:41
When he says to the kids,
"When I was 11, I joined a gang.
10:44
When I was 14,
I murdered Mr. Khamisa's son.
10:47
I've spent the last
umpteen years in prison.
10:50
I'm here to tell you: it's not worth it,"
10:53
do you think the kids
will listen to that voice?
10:56
Yes, because his intonations
10:59
will be of a person
that pulled the trigger.
11:01
And I know that he wants
to turn the clock back.
11:05
Of course, that's not possible.
11:10
I wish it was. I would have my son back.
11:12
My brother would have his grandson back.
11:14
So I think that demonstrates
the power of forgiveness.
11:17
So what's the big takeaway here?
11:23
So I want to end
our session with this quote,
11:27
which is the basis of my fourth book,
11:30
which incidentally,
11:32
the foreword for that book
was written by Tony.
11:34
So it goes like this:
sustained goodwill creates friendship.
11:38
You don't make friends
by bombing them, right?
11:42
You make friends by extending goodwill.
11:45
That ought to be obvious.
11:46
So sustained goodwill creates friendship,
11:48
sustained friendship creates trust,
11:50
sustained trust creates empathy,
11:53
sustained empathy creates compassion,
11:55
and sustained compassion creates peace.
11:58
I call this my peace formula.
12:01
It starts with goodwill, friendship,
trust, empathy, compassion and peace.
12:03
But people ask me,
how do you extend goodwill
12:09
to the person who murdered your child?
12:11
I tell them, you do that
through forgiveness.
12:14
As it's evident it worked for me.
12:17
It worked for my family.
12:19
What's a miracle is it worked for Tony,
12:21
it worked for his family,
12:24
it can work for you and your family,
12:26
for Israel and Palestine,
North and South Korea,
12:29
for Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.
12:32
It can work for
the United States of America.
12:35
So let me leave you with this, my sisters,
12:38
and a couple of brothers --
12:41
(Laughter)
12:43
that peace is possible.
12:45
How do I know that?
12:48
Because I am at peace.
12:49
Thank you very much. Namaste.
12:51
(Applause)
12:53

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About the speakers:

Azim Khamisa - Author, peace activist
Azim Khamisa speaks to students and adults on nonviolence, forgiveness and peace-building, and he is a founder of two nonprofit organizations that target youth violence.

Why you should listen

Azim Khamisa writes: "I emigrated to the USA in 1974 to escape violence in Kenya, where we were a targeted minority. But 22 years ago, my only son, Tariq, who was a university student and worked a part-time job as a pizza delivery man, was killed by a 14-year-old gang member in a gang initiation ritual. Tariq was only 20 years old when he died, and needless to say it brought my life to a crashing halt. He was a good and a generous kid!

"However, even clouded in a deeply painful tragedy I saw that there were victims on both sides of the gun. Nine months after Tariq died, I founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF). Our mission is to save lives of children, empower the right choices and teach the principles of nonviolence — of empathy, compassion, forgiveness and peacemaking. I forgave my son's killer and invited his grandfather to join me in TKF's work. With the grace of God, TKF is 22 years old and has a safe school model and is successfully keeping kids away from gangs, weapons, drugs, crime and violence. The grandfather and I are still together doing this work, and the kid who killed my son is now 36 years old and he will join us when he is paroled in October 2018. I have authored four books and speak worldwide to students and adults. I am a passionate peace activist and a teacher of nonviolence, forgiveness and spawning peacemakers."

More profile about the speaker
Azim Khamisa | Speaker | TED.com
Ples Felix - Peace activist
Ples Felix is a leader in the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, dedicated to helping stop youth violence.

Why you should listen

Ples Felix was a retired Green Beret, working in community development and raising his grandson Tony, trying hard to keep him safe and away from bad influences. But on one horrible night, Tony, in the company of older gang members, shot and killed a pizza delivery driver. It was a moment that changed many lives.

The delivery driver was Tariq Khamisa, a 20-year-old student in San Diego. His grieving father, Azim Khamisa, seeking to find meaning in unfathomable loss, started the Tariq Khamisa Foundation to address youth violence through education, mentorship and community service. And he invited Felix to join him -- because "there was a victim on both ends of that gun." Since 1995, Felix has co-led the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, developing mentorship programs that keep at-risk kids in school and on the right track.

More profile about the speaker
Ples Felix | Speaker | TED.com