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Following her father's lead, the sister of a murdered man embraces forgiveness and the power of restorative justice

Following her father's lead, the sister of a murdered man embraces forgiveness and the power of restorative justice
Tasreen Khamisa, right, who is the executive director of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, holds a picture of her brother, Tariq, who was killed during a robbery in 1995. Her organization works to stop youth violence. (Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune)

It took years for Tasreen Khamisa to move from anger to forgiveness for the person who killed her brother, Tariq Khamisa, during a 1995 robbery over pizza in North Park.

For her father, compassion came quickly — the ability to see victims on both ends of the gun fired by his young son’s killer.

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The gunman, Tony Hicks, was a skinny 14-year-old in junior high. He was also a gang member.

He’s now 38 and likely to be out on parole soon. Tasreen Khamisa, now 46, fought for his release to happen. She has come to see him as a “soul brother.”

“He took Tariq from us,” she said last week. “Yet he has taken accountability, responsibility. He has asked for forgiveness. He has worked on making amends. ... That is the power of restorative justice.”

Tasreen Khamisa’s story is one of forgiveness, of healing, of peacemaking— all at the heart of the organization her father founded and she now runs.

The Tariq Khamisa Foundation was created to educate children and teens in those restorative principles, as well as accountability. The ultimate goal: safer schools, safer communities.

The foundation was born 23 years ago, after Tasreen and Tariq’s father, Azim Khamisa, reached out to Ples Felix, grandfather to the young killer.

Together, the two men embraced the concept of restorative justice before it became a movement.

Restorative justice goes beyond punishment for a transgression. It’s about offenders coming to understand how and why their actions were harmful, and trying to make up for it.

“It’s not only healing the victim and making the victim whole,” Tasreen Khamisa said. “The power of restorative justice is healing the perpetrator to become whole — and bringing the perpetrator back into the community and be whole.”

Over the last three weeks, the story of her brother’s murder in January 1995 has landed back in the news.

The killing was high-profile from the start. Tariq Khamisa, 20, was working his way through San Diego State University, and was delivering pizzas when Hicks shot him.

Hicks was tried as an adult — the youngest person in the state to face that fate at that time. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. He got 25 years to life.

Late last month, a parole board found him suitable for release.

Tasreen Khamisa was at the parole hearing at the prison in San Luis Obispo. She and her father lobbied hard for Hicks, and have formally offered him a job at the foundation named for his victim.

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While Hicks grew up in prison, TKF grew its program.

From the start, the organization put on school assemblies, their signature presentation in which Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix tell their story to students with hopes of ending youth violence.

Now, the organization provides more services, including a 10-session character-building workshop where students learn about restorative principles such as accountability and compassion.

Recently, the foundation won a grant to start a five-session workshop for parents of adolescents, a program that parallels the student curriculum.

Hicks takes part in the foundation from afar, writing a blog for TKF and answering questions from students. He also wrote an open letter to his victim, praising him and apologizing to him.

In recent years, the philosophy of restorative justice has made its way into the juvenile justice system in San Diego County. All new probation officers are trained in the practice.

“It is a culture shift. We are transitioning from a correctional mind set to more of a therapeutic, positive youth-justice direction,” said Scott Huizar, deputy chief of the county’s Probation Department, which has responsibility for monitoring juvenile offenders under its umbrella.

He said a restorative justice approach helps teach the young offenders empathy and the negative effects of their behavior on others.

“We are eliciting a behavior change in these kids,” said Huizar, a veteran probation officer who worked in Juvenile Hall when then-14-year-old Hicks was in custody there.

District Atty. Summer Stephan said she, too, believes in restorative justice practices. “We know this is very effective with juveniles,” she said, in certain cases.

There is a specific program in place for juvenile offenders who qualify, often those accused of property crimes such as vandalism and theft. Not every young person — such as violent or repeat offenders — gets to take part in the restorative justice program, which can be a voluntary alternative to Juvenile Court.

It requires buy-in from the young offender, rather than forced participation from a judge’s order. That, Stephan said, “allows the individual to take ownership of the harm they caused.”

Sometimes, the young offender will face the victim, and they can apologize or try to explain themselves. They can also come up with proposals for how to make amends — perhaps community service or restitution.

Victims have the right to decide whether they want to take part. It’s very personal. Some don’t want to talk face-to-face with the offender. Others find it helps them heal.

The program “has a lasting effect, and a very low recidivism rate,” Stephan said.

Tariq Khamisa loved Gandhi, travel, culture, photography. He was funny and popular and two years younger than his sister.

“He was my best friend,” Tasreen Khamisa said.

When her brother was alive, Tasreen Khamisa’s college major was sociology, with an emphasis in juvenile delinquency.

Before she ever heard the name Tony Hicks, she spent her senior year studying cases like his, asking herself the larger question of why a kid would kill.

“It’s usually because they come from a really tough traumatic life, they are dealt a lot of external circumstances they could not control,” she said.

Hicks’ mom was just 14 when she had him. She and his father were gang members, authorities said. Raised by his single mom in South Los Angeles, Hicks lost three cousins to gang crossfire. His grandfather became his guardian.

“It helped me start to develop empathy for Tony, and let go of that anger and resentment in my heart,” Khamisa said. “And when I was able to do that, it opened up space for me to serve the foundation and serve kids.”

It was through her father’s urging that she came to work for the organization, back in 1998.

“I think of forgiveness in layers. I peeled off one layer of forgiveness, and said, ‘I am going to let go of that anger and that resentment and do it for myself.’

Tasreen Khamisa worked at the foundation for five years, until 2003. Although her father had met Hicks, she had not done so at that point. She didn’t see a need.

After stepping away for more than a decade to focus on her family, she came back in 2014 to lead the foundation as the executive director.

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She was ready to meet Tony Hicks.

In 2015 — 20 years after her brother was murdered — she went to Centinela State Prison in Imperial Valley to meet her brother’s killer.

The first they did was hug.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but this warmth washed over me,” Tasreen Khamisa said. “I sat in a place of complete empathy and compassion towards him.”

They talked about that awful day in 1995. They talked about what that day had been like for Hicks. They talked about her brother. They talked about remorse.

They spent six hours together. When it was time for Hicks to head back to his cell, Khamisa recalled thinking, “I knew that I was going to support him."

They talk once a week now. She is eager for Hicks to come to work for the foundation. She believes he will relate to the at-risk youth they target.

Forgiveness, Tasreen Khamisa said, “is a very personal journey.”

“My brother is my hero and he is my role model,” she said. “I deeply miss him — and I will honor him by doing this work for the rest of my life.”

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