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A single dad and his singular son celebrate a life lived against the odds


Life wasn't supposed to turn out this well for Hakim Farrakhan and his son, Karriem.

After all, Mr. Farrakhan was only 15 when his son was born -- a recipe for failure in many families.

But by all measures on this Father's Day, the Farrakhans have triumphed.

Karriem, 17, just started summer school at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, winner of a coveted Meyerhoff scholarship.

Mr. Farrakhan, a 32-year-old single father, is an administrator at a Baltimore bank and is working on a master's degree -- his second.

"I believe in parenthood," Mr. Farrakhan says. "Single mothers raise their children every day. So can men."

Hakim Farrakhan was 15 and living in a stable middle-class home in Delaware when he became a father. His girlfriend, Anissa Setts, was 16. When she became pregnant, he had the reaction that many teen-age fathers must have: "That's all it takes? I should be given another chance."

His parents were upset -- "ultra-upset." Hers were furious. There would be no abortion. Marriage was also an unworkable option, he knew.

But, Mr. Farrakhan says, he wanted to help raise his child.

Karriem's parents raised their son together for several years. But a sometimes ugly custody struggle began when he was 7. Both parents wanted the boy.

Eventually, Ms. Setts won custody. Soon thereafter, she left the country for an assignment with the Army. Mr. Farrakhan had no idea where his son was.

For six years, Karriem was gone. The only contact -- minimal as it was -- came when Karriem saw pictures of his handsome father, posing on boxes of a hair-care product sold in the Army PX.

When he was 14, Karriem was given a choice: Go live with his father in Baltimore, or stay with his mother, who had returned to the United States. His father had become something of a mystery man, but Karriem chose Baltimore.

"It was kind of hard reacquainting ourselves," Karriem says. "But we did it. We got through it.

Even before his son returned, Mr. Farrakhan became an involved father. He called and cajoled city school officials to enroll Karriem at Baltimore City College, one of the city's best public high schools.

He also began a long-term cultivation of the people who run the Meyerhoff scholarship program at UMBC, which gives full scholarships to promising blacks with an interest in the sciences.

Karriem swept through high school. His grades were good, but not always good enough for his father. He called teachers, counselors or anyone else to find out just what was happening in his son's education.

"He leaves no stone unturned," says Brenda Kirkpatrick, head of the City College guidance department. "Mr. Farrakhan was very, very instrumental in making things happen for his son."

"All my counselors know him. Even the ones who aren't mine know him," says Karriem, a little abashed. "He wants to know everything. They probably think he's prying. But he's just persistent."

Says his father: "I said, 'I'm sorry, Karriem. You picked the wrong father.' But it's so important that a child knows that a parent cares."

Mr. Farrakhan and his son have seen much of the world together, often being mistaken for brothers skiing or on trips to Montreal or Walt Disney World. One of their rules is that they sit down together each night for dinner.

They both say they have developed a relationship in which they can discuss just about anything -- drugs and sex included. Mr. Farrakhan even managed to get through the day when Karriem wrecked his car the very first time he was allowed to drive it alone.

Karriem's parents get along well now.

His mother, who lives in Delaware, has married and has four other children. When Karriem graduated from City College earlier this month, she was there. Mr. Farrakhan held an elaborate party at his house in Waverly.

A printed program for the party proudly listed the nine colleges that had accepted Karriem.

Karriem, who plans to go on to medical school and become a pediatrician, has learned one lesson from his parents: Don't make our mistake and have a child so young.

"My mother always says, 'I don't want to be a grandmother this young,' " Karriem says with a smile.

Freeman A. Hrabowski 3rd, the acting president of UMBC and head of the Meyerhoff scholar program, calls Mr. Farrakhan "a model father."

"What he did is what middle-class parents in general do. They insist upon the best for their children," Dr. Hrabowski said. "That's what every parent should be doing. That's important, especially for young black males. They need advocates for any number of reasons."

When Karriem returned to live with him, Mr. Farrakhan had to scale back a busy lifestyle that included traveling as a model and corporate spokesman. That, he says, was a blessing.

"It helps me to grow," says Mr. Farrakhan. "It also helps me to feel I'm contributing to the world."

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