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'Worth Being Forgiven': A Father And His Son's Killer Bring Past And Present Together

Tony Hicks, left, and Azim Khamisa in December 2019, in San Diego, Calif.
Courtesy of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation
Tony Hicks, left, and Azim Khamisa in December 2019, in San Diego, Calif.

In 1995, 14-year-old Tony Hicks got involved with a gang in Southern California. One night, as he and fellow gang members attempted to rob a pizza delivery driver, Tony shot and killed him.

That driver was Tariq Khamisa, a 20-year-old student at San Diego State University.

Tony became the youngest person in California to be charged as an adult. He served the majority of his sentence in maximum security prisons before he was released in 2019.

It was in the prison's visiting room where, a few years into his sentence, he first met Tariq's father, Azim Khamisa.

In a recent remote StoryCorps conversation from San Diego, he and Azim spoke about healing, forgiveness and the unlikely friendship they formed.

"It took me five years to develop enough courage to come and meet you," Azim, now 71, told Tony, 40.

They met in 2000. Before the meeting, Tony felt anxious.

"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," he said.

Azim remembered being surprised by Tony's composure at the time.

"You didn't portray any of the typical attitude of a 19-year-old in our culture," he said.

Tony was 15 when he pleaded guilty and entered the prison system for juveniles. At 16, he relocated to Folsom when California moved its juvenile inmates into the state prison system alongside adults.

"I had to grow up and mature a little bit just to survive in there," he told Azim.

Azim's son, Tariq Khamisa, pictured as a senior in high school at age 18.
/ Tariq Khamisa Foundation
Tariq Khamisa Foundation
Azim's son, Tariq Khamisa, pictured as a senior in high school at age 18.

At the trial, Tony's guardian — his grandfather, Ples Felix — pledged to befriend the Khamisa family and help them in any way he could. Azim and Ples developed a deep friendship. The two started a restorative justice foundation in Tariq's name called The Tariq Khamisa Foundation, also known as TKF.

Tariq loved taking photographs and wanted to work for National Geographic one day.

Azim said that the first meeting with Tony was a painful moment.

"You know, one of the questions I had for you is if Tariq said anything to you, because you were the last person to see him," he said. "We locked eyes for a long time. It was painful."

Tony called it "the most difficult conversation that I had in my life."

"You were remorseful," Azim told Tony. "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 in that moment that Azim said he told Tony that he had forgiven him.

"Your forgiveness was heavy on me," Tony said. "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."

But Azim left their conversation wondering why he had waited as long as five years.

"I always felt forgiveness is something you give to yourself," he said. "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. ... It was a gift, and I honor you for doing that."

When Tony was released from prison, he said, "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."

"I liked what you said, Tony – 'to bring your past and present together,' " said Azim. "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."

While he was in prison, Tony started volunteering with TKF. He kept a blog, recorded video interviews and spoke with students about his experience, The San Diego Tribune reported. He continues to work with the foundation today.

"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," Tony told Azim.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Sylvie Lubow with Mitra Bonshahi. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvie Lubow
Mitra Bonshahi