He forgave the man who killed his son, and helped free him from prison

The night Azim Khamisa learned his son was murdered in a botched robbery, he fell to the floor, cradling himself against a refrigerator.

“The pain was so unbearable,” Khamisa, 75, recalled. “I had this out-of-body experience.”

His son, Tariq Khamisa, was a college sophomore at San Diego State University and working as a pizza deliveryman in 1995, when four teenaged gang members tried to rob him. Tariq Khamisa fought back, refusing to give them the pizza box in his hands. As he drove off, one gang member, Tony Hicks, fatally shot him with a stolen handgun.

Just hours after learning of his son’s death, as Khamisa lay helpless on the floor, he had an epiphany.

A message came from a higher power, he said.

“There were victims at both ends of the gun,” Khamisa said he realized. “Sometimes in deep trauma and tragedy, you have a spark of clarity.”

And so Azim Khamisa did what most people wouldn’t even attempt: He found a way to forgive — and later befriend — his child’s murderer.

Khamisa — who practices meditation and sufism, a mystical religious practice within Islam — felt that although Hicks committed a hideous act, he alone was not to blame for Tariq’s death.

“It wasn’t a 14-year-old that was the enemy who killed my son, it was the societal forces that caused it,” Khamisa said. “The real culprit is that we haven’t addressed why young people fall through the cracks and get involved in gangs and drugs and alcohol, and we lose so many kids.”

Khamisa made it his mission to change that.

Nine months after his son’s death, Khamisa started the Tariq Khamisa Foundation to help create safer schools and communities — and prevent teens from turning to crime. It was a way to honor his son’s legacy and give his short life more meaning.

“I didn’t want to go through life angry and in hatred and resentment. Because if you stay like that, who do you hurt? Yourself,” Khamisa said. “Forgiveness can create peace. …We need to move away from this punitive mindset and become restorative.”

Khamisa described his son as “an old soul in a young body with a great sense of humor,” and said he wanted to become a photographer. He was 20 years old and engaged to be married.

Seven years following his death, Tariq’s fiancée, Jennifer, took her own life.

“She was never able to bounce back,” said Khamisa.

Khamisa’s plan to forgive Hicks was set in motion a few months after the shooting when he met Hicks’s grandfather, Ples Felix, in the office of Hicks’s defense lawyer. Khamisa asked Felix to help him carry out his mission through the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. Felix was on board.

For the past 28 years, the unlikely pair have spoken at hundreds of school assemblies and events, as well as in prisons. In various forums, they have recounted the tragic tale that bonded them.

“I do believe that we all, at some point, have to learn to forgive,” Khamisa said. “If we had enough people forgiving, that would shift society.”

Khamisa also sought to connect with Hicks shortly after the murder to forgive him face-to-face.

Hicks, then an eighth-grader, became the youngest person in California to be tried as an adult and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Initially, when Khamisa requested to meet him and express forgiveness, Hicks declined.

“It was not something I was comfortable with, but it was something that I knew needed to be done at some point,” said Hicks, now 43. “I didn’t feel that I deserved to be forgiven for what I had done.”

Hicks struggled to process his emotions, he said. He felt numb.

“Prison, a lot of times, isn’t conducive to having these emotional epiphanies about your life,” he said.

Five years after the shooting, Hicks felt ready to meet Khamisa. He sat across from him at California’s Folsom State Prison, and they spoke for six hours.

“That was one of the most difficult conversations that I’ve had to have with anybody,” said Hicks, adding that Khamisa asked him about the night he murdered his son — and the circumstances that led him to pull the trigger.

Hicks’s mother gave birth to him when she was 14 years old. His father wasn’t in his life.

“I come from what would be considered a gang background,” said Hicks, who joined a gang in sixth grade. “The majority of my family members were gang-involved.”

Hicks’s mother sent him to live with his grandfather when he was 9, and “sending me away made me feel like I was being abandoned,” he said.

The day that Hicks killed Tariq, he had run away from his grandfather’s home in San Diego. His grandfather was strict, which was a tough transition from his mother’s more hands-off approach to parenting.

“What was going through my head was a lot of pain and anger,” Hicks said. “I was focused on maintaining the last familial relationships that I felt like I had in my life; that was my friends at the time, and the guys I ran with.”

When fellow gang members urged him to pull the trigger that night, “I didn’t give it any thought,” he said.

As Hicks spoke, Khamisa said he felt a connection to him.

“I’m looking in his eyes, and he held my glance for what seemed like an uncomfortable time,” Khamisa said. “I was able to climb through his eyes and touch his humanity.”

At the end of their discussion, Khamisa told Hicks he forgave him. He also encouraged him to take part in the Tariq Khamisa Foundation upon his release.

“Forgiveness can be very freeing,” said Khamisa, explaining that when he left the prison that day, he felt markedly lighter.

Hicks said he felt lighter, too.

“No adults in my life spoke about forgiveness in that way,” he said. “Azim’s ability to forgive me provided me with the space to begin to forgive myself and forgive those people in my life that hurt me.”

Hicks said his self-examination was slow and painful.

While in prison, Hicks stayed in touch with Khamisa. And after a time, Khamisa’s daughter also reached out to Hicks.

It took her 20 years of wrestling with the agony of losing her brother, but like her father, Tasreen Khamisa came to understand that Tariq wasn’t the only victim in the shooting.

Soon, Tasreen Khamisa, 51, started having weekly calls with Hicks while he was in prison. “I felt a strong responsibility to make sure that Tony was also going to have the opportunity to heal and find his purpose,” she said.

Hicks’s grandfather and the Khamisas became his support system while he was incarcerated. They spent years lobbying for his release.

“My attitude to the commissioner was: Tony has work to do, and that work is not behind bars,” said Azim Khamisa. “The commissioner was very touched that the victim’s father and sister advocated for the offender’s release.”

After 24 years in prison, Hicks was granted parole and released in 2019 at age 38.

“That was an amazing outcome,” said Azim Khamisa.

Since his release, Hicks — who has developed a stronger relationship with both his parents in recent years — has served on the board of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, and he speaks at conferences and schools about his life story. He encourages students to avoid the path he took, and he reminds them that they can change the course of their lives.

Hicks is also a plumber, and he said he is rebuilding his life.

“It’s been a very slow process,” he said. “I’m doing really well over the last five years.”

Much of that is because of the Khamisas, who he considers family.

“Family isn’t always blood,” Hicks said.

The Khamisas say Hicks has become an important member of their family.

“I see him as a son,” said Azim Khamisa.

“I feel like he’s my soul brother,” said Tasreen Khamisa, the executive director of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation.

Often, Azim Khamisa places a photo of Tariq across from him while he eats dinner. He lights a candle next to his son.

“I talk to him, and he talks back,” Azim Khamisa said.

Tariq tells him he’s proud of his decision to forgive, and that it has inspired others to do the same.

“I know that in the future, Tariq and Tony will meet hand in hand,” Azim Khamisa said.

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