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Friday, August 15, 2014

Forgiving Murder

Author's Note: Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix appeared at San Diego City College's "Passport to Life" recently. This article first appeared in Asian Fortune in 2010.

Foundation of Forgiveness 
pic by Bangin
Imagine the devastation of losing a son. On January 21, 1995, Azim Khamisa came face to face with this reality. His twenty-year-old son, Tariq, was murdered in a gang-related robbery over two pizzas worth $27.24. Tariq worked for DeMille’s Italian Restaurant in San Diego and went on a delivery to a North Park apartment. Four members of a youth gang known as “The Black Mob” had staged a phony call to steal pizza from a delivery driver.
Tariq refused to comply and attempted to drive away from his assailants. The gang leader ordered a fourteen-year-old named Tony Hicks to shoot the delivery driver. Hicks pulled the trigger of a stolen 9mm semiautomatic handgun and killed Tariq Khamisa.
Tariq was Azim Khamisa’s only son. He was a San Diego State University student who planned to marry a young woman named Jennifer Patchen. They shared a passion for art and thought of moving to New York together. They had been going out for a year and engaged for two months. They were in love.
When Tariq was a child, Azim worked as an international investment banker and spent a lot of time away on business travels. Then Azim and his wife divorced and he was absent from his son’s life. As adults, father and son were learning to reconnect. They frequented a neighborhood restaurant called the Hobnob for breakfasts of steak and eggs or corned beef hash. They reminisced, told stories, and discussed Tariq’s future. Azim wanted his son to go into business. Tariq was interested in photography. Three months before he died, Tariq wrote a letter to his father. The following excerpt from that letter was published in Azim Khamisa’s book, Azim’s Bardo: From Murder to Forgiveness:

Dear Dad,
The last two years of my life in San Diego haven’t been easy. I thought I was here to go to school, meet my father, and possibly follow in his footsteps. Tempting though that was, following in your footsteps is not for me. Because I’ve tried to live up to those expectations, I haven’t been able to be honest with you, and in return, I believe you haven’t been honest with me. There is something great in you, for I’ve seen touches of it, but for us to be who we are, there has to be total honesty . . .   

Azim and Tariq were beginning to bridge their differences and come to terms with their past. Then it all came to an abrupt and tragic end in a moment of senseless violence on a cold and empty January evening.
“I’ve never felt pain like that in my life,” Azim said of learning about Tariq’s death. “The pain was so excruciating, I couldn’t be in my body. I left my body.”
Azim Khamisa wasn’t the only one who suffered a loss that night. Tony Hicks had run away from the home of his grandfather, Ples Felix, the day he shot Tariq. Hicks lived with Felix because his mother, 15 when she gave birth to Hicks, was incapable of raising him. Hicks’s father, a drug user and gang member in South Central LA, beat Hicks the few times they saw each other. Angry at his parents and the world, Hicks began to hang with the wrong crowd.
pic by Kafziel
“It was unbelievable to me that my loving, courteous, well-spoken, very sensitive grandson would be so angry and so overcome with this destructive emotion that it would result in the murder of a person,” Felix said. “When it happened, it was totally surreal to me. That’s the only way I could characterize it.”
Based on a law regarding juvenile crime that went into effect in January 1995, Hicks became the youngest person in California history at that time to be tried as an adult. The night before Hicks made his plea in court, Felix spoke to his grandson. They shared oranges together, a ritual they performed whenever they needed to discuss something important. That evening, Tony Hicks broke down in his grandfather’s arms and accepted responsibility for his actions. The next day, Hicks pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life in jail.
It would’ve been easy for Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix to be enemies, lashing out in vengeance or blame. That’s not what happened. Both men grieved a heart-wrenching loss. Both chose to extend compassion to the other. Nine months after his son’s death, Azim started the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit to help prevent youth violence. He requested to meet with Felix, then asked the grandfather of his son’s killer to join him in stopping the cycle of youth violence. These two men, both 61, have worked together for fifteen years impacting children all over the world through the sharing of their stories and imparting the message of nonviolence and forgiveness.
Five years after Tariq died, Azim Khamisa sought out Tony Hicks in prison. “When I met him, I had some questions because he was the last human being to see my son,” Azim related. “I looked in (his) eyes thinking I wanted to find a murderer in him. I did not see a murderer. I saw another human being, another soul much like me.”
pic courtesy Azim Khamisa
Azim, born in Kenya and a practicing Sufi Muslim, chose to forgive the person who shot his son. Hicks is now 29 and due to spend 17 more years in prison. Azim is advocating for his release and wants Hicks to join him at TKF.
Azim’s embracing of forgiveness has left a lasting legacy. The Tariq Khamisa Foundation is making a difference. Marcellous Cisneros is a 15-year-old ninth grader at Point Loma High School in San Diego. He used to cause trouble in school. “I was always in the office. I got referrals for talking back to teachers,” he said. 
When Cisneros was 10, TKF did a presentation at his school, Dana Elementary. He watched a video of what happened to Tariq, and it affected him. “If I didn’t change, I was going to end up like him,” he conveyed.
Cisneros did change. He was chosen by his counselor to take part in the TKF program. He received mentoring. He took part in recreational activities. He stopped talking back to teachers. He stopped getting referrals. He now speaks to audiences in the community about TKF.
The Foundation conducts school presentations called “Violence Impact Forums” to show children the real effects of violence. TKF facilitated a recent presentation at Audubon K-8 School in Lomita Village near Spring Valley. Azim and Felix talked side by side to the students gathered in the auditorium. They played a video depicting what happened on the night Tariq was killed. The video also gave the audience a glimpse into Hicks’s life from prison.
Later, during the Violence Impact Forum’s Q & A, a young boy sitting in the middle of the crowd of students raised his hand and asked the presenters if they ever had feelings of wanting revenge because that’s how he felt sometimes. He was five years old when he lost his mother to violence.
Azim Khamisa asked how many of the students had lost a family member to violence. A half-dozen hands were slowly raised. Azim nodded, a look of sadness and understanding etched on his face. “In every act of violence, there are families that suffer and suffer for a long time,” he said.

Sidebar:
The Tariq Khamisa Foundation
7490 Opportunity Road
Suite 202
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 565-0800
site: www.tkf.org  

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