Leon Faruq, the director of Safe Streets for Living Classrooms who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, died Wednesday at Sinai Hospital, where he was being treated for kidney disease. He was 58.
Mr. Faruq - who was Leon Awkard Jr. until his conversion to Islam - was born in Olney and raised in Northeast Washington, the eldest of five children.
His run-ins with the law began early.
He was 13 when he started breaking into cars, houses and stores, which resulted in his being sent away by his family to a juvenile institution.
He was 16 when he dropped out of high school and he celebrated his 18th birthday in a juvenile detention center.
After one prospective employer told him that he thought blacks were fit only for menial labor, Mr. Faruq made a decision to make a living holding up drug dealers with the help of his younger brother, George "Punchy" Awkard.
"That's the last time I tried to get a job," he told Baltimore Magazine's John Lewis in a 2003 profile.
By 1971, Mr. Faruq was doing time in the Lorton Correctional Facility in Virginia for assaulting a police officer and found himself face to face with some of the drug dealers he had robbed.
Out on the streets again, Mr. Faruq helped "Punchy," who was being held on a manslaughter charge, and seven other inmates, escape from the D.C. jail in a 1972 breakout. The next year, Mr. Faruq landed in the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup after being found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
For the first two years of his term, Mr. Faruq, who had always been a reader, was locked in his cell 23 hours a day.
He turned to books and read incessantly. His topics were history, the classics, mythology, science, mathematics and religion.
By the time he left prison in 2000 after convincing the Circuit Court of Prince George's County that he had been wrongly sentenced, Mr. Faruq had earned two bachelor's degrees from Coppin State University - one in business administration and the other in sociology - and a master's degree in business administration from Vermont College.
He had met and fallen in love with Noni Ford, a librarian, who worked in the library at the Baltimore City Correctional Center, where Mr. Faruq had been held for a time. They were married at the jail in 1994.
"I was there the day he walked out of Jessup with utter dignity and grace. When he walked out, I never got the sense that he was angry at all. He was a person who was always looking forward," Mr. Lewis recalled Thursday.
"When he walked out, he had a wife, a home and a promise of a job," he said. "His life had changed, and his previous experiences allowed him to do the work he was doing in Baltimore at his death."
From 2000 to 2001, Mr. Faruq worked as an assistant at a foster care agency.
Interested in the plight of ex-offenders and helping them adjust to life outside of prison, in 2001 Mr. Faruq founded Respect Outreach Center, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth and ex-inmates.
"His message was that once you change your thinking, you can be held accountable for what you know," his wife said. "He got them into training programs. He'd tell them, 'You have to get a job or you'll eventually go back to prison.' "
Several years ago, Mr. Faruq's Respect Outreach Center was merged into Living Classrooms' Safe Streets program.
"Leon's death is an incredible shock and a great loss," said James Piper Bond, president and chief executive of Living Classrooms.
"He had an incredible spirit and an aura about him that captured the respect of the young people on the street, gang members, politicians, mayors and police commissioners," he said.
"His message of no-violence on the streets of Baltimore will be his legacy and his work will go on," Bond said.
Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research and assistant director for research at Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention of Youth Violence, said that Mr. Faruq's work had led to a reduction in violence and homicides in the East Baltimore neighborhood where he worked.
"He had a remarkable gift at mediating serious gang disputes," Mr. Webster said. "He was able to bring his personal message, make connections, build trust, and make lasting peace."
"Leon's legacy will live on because he created lasting change in that part of East Baltimore," Mr. Webster said.
A Howard Park resident, Mr. Faruq was a leader in the neighborhood's Islamic Center and in its Muslim community.
Services will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at the Masjid Al Rahman, 6631 Johnnycake Road in Windsor Mill.
Also surviving are his parents, Leon and Irene Awkard of Bladensburg; his brother, George "Punchy" Awkard, who was paroled in 1991 and lives in Suitland; and two sisters, Veronica Awkard of Washington and Jannett Awkard of Jamaica.