Kamilah Kashanie (KK): It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie.
This week’s episode is a heavy one. We’re going to be talking about a murder, and how the families involved eventually found their way to forgiveness. We’re bringing you back to January 21st, 1995.
20-year-old Tariq Khamisa was a student at San Diego State University, and he was out delivering a pizza, when a gang tried to rob him. Things escalated, and when an older gang member told him to, 14-year-old Tony Hicks shot and killed Tariq.
While Tariq’s family was grieving, his father, Azim, leaned on his faith as a Sufi Muslim.
Azim Khamisa (AK): It’s hard to replay those early days; I don’t have the words to describe how painful that experience was. I couldn’t be in my body. I couldn’t sleep or eat but I could meditate. And I had this out of body experience. And I don’t remember how long I was gone, but God sent me back to my body with the wisdom that there are victims at both ends of the gun.
KK: Just a few weeks before all this, the law in California had changed. The minimum age to be charged as an adult for violent crimes used to be 16. But the new law made it 14.
So when he should have been in 8th grade, Tony Hicks became the youngest person in the state to be tried as an adult. He pled guilty and was given 25 years to life, and he served most of his time at maximum security prisons.
A few years into Tony’s sentence, Azim made a choice that other people might not have made. He decided he wanted to meet Tony.
Tony was released in 2019. And last December, he and Azim looked back at the first conversation they had after Tariq’s death.
AK: It took me five years to develop enough courage to come and meet you. What do you remember about our first meeting?
Tony Hicks (TH): We were in the visiting room in Folsom State Prison. I had been anxious over meeting you. I felt so horrible for what I did that I wanted to be able to do something to help you heal in some type of way.
AK: I was amazed of your composure. You didn’t portray any of the typical attitude of a 19-year-old in our culture.
TH: Well, coming into a maximum security prison at 16, I had to grow up and mature a little bit just to survive in there.
AK: You know, one of the questions I had for you is if Tariq said anything to you, cause you were the last person to see him. We locked eyes for a long time. It was painful.
TH: It was the most difficult conversation that I had in my life.
AK: You were remorseful. You took responsibility for your actions and in that moment, I got that the spark in you was no different than the spark in me. It was at that point I told you I had forgiven you.
TH: Your forgiveness was heavy on me. I didn’t feel like I was deserving because I knew what I had taken away from you. But your example gave me space to work on understanding that I was worth being forgiven.
AK: I always felt forgiveness is something you give to yourself. I grew up in the Sufi tradition and I think that helped me a lot to know that I didn’t want to go through life in anger and revenge. And after our first meeting, my stride was much bouncier leaving the prison than the one I’d walked in with. And I thought to myself: Why did I wait five years? Because it was a gift, and I honor you for doing that.
TH: Years later, when I was released from prison, I wanted to go back to where I murdered Tariq and just bring my past and my present together in that moment. I wanted to reaffirm to Tariq I was a changed person, and that I wouldn’t squander this opportunity.
AK: I liked what you said, Tony, “to bring your past and present together.” That pain is not a bad thing if it makes you a better person. That’s how I feel the journey has been for me.
TH: You are instrumental in the person that I am today, and I am extraordinarily grateful to know you and to have you in my life.
KK: That was Tony Hicks and Azim Khamisa. Nine months after Tariq was killed, Azim started the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, a non-profit that teaches young people about restorative justice.
And he started the organization with someone that most people wouldn’t expect, Tony Hicks’ grandfather and guardian, Ples Felix. Here’s Azim speaking with Ples.
AK: I saw that the enemy wasn’t Tony, but rather the societal pressures that force many many many young men and women to fall through the cracks. So it was with that mindset that I decided to start the foundation. But then I knew I couldn’t do this by myself, so my motivation to reach out to you was to ask for your help.
Ples Felix (PF): That first meeting was really an answer to my prayer. I recognized immediately that there was going to be a need to be as supportive as I possibly can, because your family suffered a loss that’s unimaginably tragic.
AK: I know that you also suffered a lot. Tony was only 14 years old and he’s like a son to you, and was moved to an adult prison at the age of 16. That’s barbaric too, when you look at our society to send young people away for life.
PF: I began to really focus and be of support to my dear grandson for the tragic mistake he made by taking Tariq’s life, and to also be of support to your family, Azim.
AK: We met in one of the most dire circumstances any two people can come together. And yet here we are, as brothers, and the friendship has been as meaningful to me as our work.
PF: I mean, you made a choice, Azim. Your decision to forgive affected me. I’m never thankful for the tragedy, but I have to say that I do have gratitude for your response. And I’ll never forget that as long as I breathe.
AK: And thank you Ples, because you’ve helped me carry my weight, as I have helped you carry your weight. I feel we are part of the same family. I’ve grown a lot from your friendship, so I am eternally grateful.
KK: That’s Azim with Tony’s grandfather, Ples Felix. They’re still part of the foundation today, and Tasreen Khamisa, Azim’s daughter and Tariq’s sister, is the Executive Director.
A lot of their work is inspired by Tariq. So back in December, Azim and Tasreen had a conversation to remember him.
AK: This has been 25 years, sweetheart. Would you share your own perspective of who Tariq was?
Tasreen Khamisa (TK): Tariq was my best friend. He was just the type of person that walked into a room and everyone could just feel his energy. When he loved you, he loved you full blown. And I miss him so much and the way he just always loved me so unconditionally.
AK: There isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t think about Tariq or I don’t. Would you share some of those stories about Tariq when you went to Kenya to meet your mom’s family, and some of my family?
TK: So I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, but grew up in the US. When I graduated from university, I got to take a trip and my brother came. This was the summer of ‘94; Tariq passed away in the winter of ‘95. So that trip, it was a pure gift.
One of his greatest loves was photography. He took thousands and thousands of pictures while we were there. He wanted to work for National Geographic and travel the world. And I remember sitting in a cafe in Kenya and we would sit there for hours and drink coffee and just talk about life and our dreams. He’d found the love of his life, his soulmate. And just to have that quality time with him was so precious.
AK: I still feel really sad because I did get a postcard from him, and Tariq said, I wish you were here, Dad. And, um, I know I was too busy. And I so wish I could have shared that special time with you.
TK: You know, we lost him 25 years ago, but I’ve always talked about him to my kids. And my kids feel a strong connection to their uncle. They’d call him Tariq Mama, because that’s what they’d call him in our language. And my son, Khalil, resembles my brother a lot, the same kind of temperament, you know ,funny but just like loving and kind.
AK: I’m glad you share that. It’s a real shame and pity that they never got to meet Tariq. But they are meeting Tariq through you and your stories.
KK: That’s Azim with his daughter, Tasreen. More from them after a short break. Stay with us
KK: Tasreen and Azim had their StoryCorps conversation 25 years after Tariq was killed. And one of the things they hadn’t talked about in a while was what it felt like immediately after he was gone.
AK: I know this has been hard on the entire family, but the day that we found out Tariq had been shot and killed, talk about your feelings that day.
TK: When I found out, I was visiting my grandparents. My grandmother answered the phone and she started screaming. And when I heard, “Tariq’s been shot and killed.” I immediately went into shock, like there’s no way that this could have happened. And so when I got to your house, and seeing the look on your face, that was when it became very real for me. I remember sobbing and crying. I just finally let it all go. And the next twenty-four hours were just a complete blur. We have prayer beads they’re called tasbih. And all we could do was pray over and over again.
The most painful thing I’ve ever gone through in my life is losing my brother. I honestly felt that half of me died that day. And so, the only thing that I can do for him now is to fulfill his dream of leaving this world a better place. And that’s what gets me up every day. And that, I believe, has made this whole experience bearable for me.
AK: You know, I didn’t meet Tony till five years after the tragedy. But it was later when you first met Tony. And I want you to share it, because you have a very special relationship with him.
TK: For me, I had forgiven him, but I didn’t have a desire to have a relationship with him. But, you know, five years ago, I really felt a strong pull to meet him. I had some really vivid dreams. And in those dreams, Tariq was always telling me it was important that I have a relationship with Tony.
He was still in prison, and I traveled with Ples and we sat down. I was really, really nervous. But I spent seven hours with Tony and just got to know him. And I felt Tariq, his energy, just surround us. It was really difficult that day leaving the visiting area with Ples.
They have all the inmates line up against this back wall watching their loved ones walk out the door. And I remember turning around and looking at Tony’s face, and our eyes locked. And the minute we got outside, I told Ples, “We’re going to do everything that we can to get him out.” And that, I think, became a really strong purpose for me.
AK: Even at the parole hearing, the commissioner was really touched. In his 30 plus years, he had never had a victim’s sister and father advocate for the offender’s release.
TK: Since he’s been out, he’s a big part of my life. And I think that’s why forgiveness journeys are so personal. They don’t happen overnight. It’s not like a light you turn on and off. I think it’s a process. And I really believe there’s layers to forgiveness. Iit took me a while to have a relationship with him, but I’m glad I peeled off that last layer and have him in my life.
KK: After that first meeting in 2015, Tasreen kept in touch with Tony. They wrote letters and they called each other. Today, they have a really close relationship — but obviously it could have gone a very different way.
They sat down for StoryCorps to remember a hard conversation they had right before Tony was released from prison.
TK: I remember that day, I said, “you don’t owe me anything, I don’t ever want you to feel obligated to me.” I wanted our relationship to grow authentically.
TH: Me too. I was thoroughly surprised at the relationship that we had forged. And I love our relationship now, like. I don’t recharge with other people — It’s not something that I do — but I can always kinda recharge with you.
TK: That’s so true. I totally recharge with you. I think it’s because we can get through painful moments and be honest about them. It can be hard at times, but that thought of you not being in my life is just way more painful.
TH: I refuse to think about a time where I don’t have you in my life.
TK: So what’s the most special memory that you have of you and I’s time together?
TH: The first time I met your kids; it seemed like we’d already known each other. And I kind of marveled at the fact that they’re so smart, they’re so worldly at such a young age. They eat sushi.
TH: They’re really great. You’re a great mom.
TK: Thank you. I remember that day you came over and you hung out at the house.
TK: And it was important for me for you to meet my kids because I really, truly wanted them to know you, and be able to, like, have meals together and you and Shaheem bonding over sushi together.
TH: [Laughs] The more I know you, the more I know your kids — my love grows for all of you — the kind of worse I feel for hurting you all the way I’ve hurt y’all.
TK: I know. I know you feel that way. But you’ve gone through change and evolution and hard work. And now I just truly want you to be happy.
TH: I really appreciate that. Even when everything else doesn’t feel like it’s lining up, you are a very good part of my life.
TK: I feel the same way. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t think about Tariq or I don’t miss him or remember him. But for me, I think that meeting you and having you in my life, it made a lot of room in my heart for light to come in. And my future feels better with you in it.
KK: That’s Tasreen and Tony in San Diego.
As you’ve heard throughout the episode, forgiveness is complicated — people come to it at their own time, on their own terms, and some people don’t get there at all. But like Azim said, in this case, forgiveness was something that they chose for themselves.
That’s all for this episode, and this season of the StoryCorps podcast.
To hear more stories and get info on the music you just heard, go to storycorps dot org. While you’re there you can also see original artwork created by Lindsay Mound.
The episode was produced by Sylvie Lubow and Jud Esty-Kendall, who is also the editor. Jarrett Floyd is our technical director and also wrote our theme song. Our fact checker is Natsumi Ajisaka. Special thanks to Jasmyn Morris, Mitra Bonshahi and Harrison Vijay Tsui.
I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie. Catch you next season.