The Story of Ples Felix and Azim Kamisa
October 19, 2005
Tony Hicks was mad as hell. Mad that he didn’t have a father. Mad that his teenage mother didn’t know the first thing about parenting. Mad that he didn’t feel part of any community. The year was 1995. Tony was fourteen and living in San Diego—his grandfather, Ples Felix, doing his best to raise him
Tony thought he had found solace in a neighborhood gang. The gang gave him community; it gave him pride; and it gave him a much-needed outlet for his anger.
In the early autumn of that year, the gang began initiating Tony into a life of violence and drugs. The risks were high, but Tony felt that the group could be his much needed missing family. Among the initiations, “Jacking the pizza guy” was a rite a passage that all gang members had to face.
Around 9:30pm, Tariq Khamisa, a student at San Diego State and the only son of a Azim Khamisa, a prosperous investment banker, pulled up his car to deliver two pepperoni pizzas. As Tariq took the pizza’s out of the trunk, he heard someone cock a gun behind him.
When he turned around, he saw the barrel pointed at his face—holding that gun was Tony and behind him were several other gang members. Tony demanded the pizzas and cash. Tariq refused.
Taken off guard, Tony looked to his friends. “Tony, cap his a#s. Cap him!” Tony hesitated, but the other gang members insisted. Afraid and angry at the card God dealt him, Tony pulled the trigger. Tariq collapsed to the ground.
Later that night, the police found Tony hiding and afraid. Convicted of first-degree murder, the fourteen year old, Tony Hicks, was sentenced to life in prison.
When a detective from the San Diego Metropolitan Police Department woke up Azim Khamisa with the news that his son had been shot and killed, Azim said it felt, “as if a nuclear bomb had gone off in [his] heart.”
He went into deep mourning. As a Sufi-Muslim, meditation was a large part of his spiritual life before his son’s death. After his death, he used meditation to help him cope with the devastation. Sometimes meditating for four or five hours a day, Azim worked toward finding a way to accept the death of his only son. His mosque was supportive and for months provided him with food and company. Ultimately, though, Azim had to find peace on his own.
As time passed, Azim started to see flickers of forgiveness. He slowly redirected the energy of anger and devastation into the desire to find a way to prevent this from happening again. As Azim put it, he exercised his “forgiveness muscle” everyday, and sure enough, his ability to forgive increased. As Azim began to understand it, there were three victims in his son’s murder: his son, his son’s killer, and the community at large.
Soon thereafter, Azim requested to meet Ples Feliz, Tony’s grandfather. At that first introduction, Ples told Azim that the Khamisa family had been in his prayers ever since that awful day. Azim told Ples about his newly founded non-profit dedicated to ending youth violence, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF). Azim invited Ples to join, and Ples gladly agreed.
Since that time, Azim and Ples have launched efforts to prevent youth violence through education on non-violent resolution. The two men travel together around the country speaking at schools, city halls, recreation centers, and religious organizations. They have personally reached 350,000 children and millions more have heard their story through broadcast and media publications. TKF has also worked with Discovery Education to develop a violence prevention program that will reach 24,000 school and 10.5 million children.
Recently, TKF has developed the Constant & Never Ending Improvement Program to work with violent youth and gang members to help reintegrate them as functioning members of society. The program has been replicated in Atlanta, San Diego, and Chicago.
Today, Tony is still behind bars. He spends twenty-three hours a day in the same windowless room, using most of his time to read books that his grandfather sends him. He is only allowed to leave his cell for a shower and the rare walk outside.
In the spring of 2005, Azim wrote a letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger asking him to commute Tony Hick’s sentence. So far, Azim has not heard back.