Black Muslims here strive to save young lives

3 x 2 city muslims
Meeting in a local barbershop, three Muslim men (from left) Will Little, Sahmer Sims and Sahkur Watson talk about their positive work in the community.

AFTER HIS foster brother Latif shot his brother John to death in 1993, Hanief Wesley Robinson spent years plotting a murderous revenge.

To this day, Robinson doesn't know whether Latif Michael Myrick intentionally or accidentally ended 14-year-old John B. Robinson III's life.

It didn't matter to him. Robinson wanted Myrick dead.

"I wanted his blood," Robinson said. "An eye for an eye."

Myrick was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent nearly 20 years in prison.

For the first few years, Robinson said, he was "living reckless in the streets, selling drugs, hoping to get sent to any jail my brother was at, so I could kill him."

But at age 20, he said, he converted to Islam, and he changed.

Robinson, now 33, has spent the last decade working at juvenile detention centers, coaching girls' basketball at Audenried High School, and mentoring teens in Stop the Madness-Stop the Violence programs at the Cobbs Creek Recreation Center.

Myrick was released in 2013.

When Robinson saw his brother on the street last year, he was faced with a decision that could change both their lives.

He says he could not have made the right choice without his fervent belief in Islam.

Robinson, 33, and some fellow African American Muslims who are devoted to saving lives met at the Jazz U Up barbershop in Point Breeze recently to tell the Daily News how Islam helped them save themselves.

When world media attention is focused on Islam's links to terrorism, these men said that to them, being Muslims means being compassionate.

"For those who don't know about Islam, we want them to know there are African American Muslims in Philadelphia who embrace Islam, change their lives around, and improve other people's lives," said Will Little, a Jazz U Up barber.

As a teenager selling drugs and running with a South Philadelphia street gang around 20th and Tasker Streets, Little killed Terrence Brice, a rival gang member from 17th and Dickinson, during a 1989 shootout.

He spent 10 years in prison, converted to Islam, and returned to South Philly a changed man. He spent his days cutting hair and his nights mentoring teenagers at antiviolence sessions in barbershops, rec centers, and schools all over Philadelphia.

Unbeknownst to Little, he was stalked for years by Brice's brother, Lamont Hatton, who wanted revenge.

But as he covertly stalked Little, Hatton saw that his brother's killer was devoted to saving teenagers from the violence of the streets.

Hatton's better angels finally won the battle for his soul. He walked up to Little in Jazz U Up and forgave him.

The two men now work together in Little's Redemption, Forgiveness, Peace community outreach program for at-risk teens.

As Robinson struggled over whether to revenge-kill his brother, he read Little's story in the Daily News in 2014 and went to him for counseling.

"I asked Will, 'Do I forgive him? Do I kill him?' " Robinson said. "Will told me, 'You're doing too much positive stuff in the community. You can't kill him.' "

Last July 15, on the 22d anniversary of his little brother's death, Robinson went to his masjid (mosque) for afternoon prayer and found the answer to his internal torment.

"All the hate went out of me," Robinson said. "I finished praying, and I cried. For the first time in 22 years, I felt free from all the weight of anger. I didn't want to kill him anymore. I wanted to forgive him. So I did.

"If it wasn't for Islam - reading the scriptures, finding inner peace by submitting to the will of God - I would never have been able to accept his apology and forgive him," Robinson said.

"My journey through Islam brought me to the peaceful place I am in today."

Sahmir Sims, 47, a mentor in Little's Redemption, Forgiveness, Peace program who owns S&Q Halal Hoagies in Point Breeze with his brother Shakur Watson, said he was a Christian until one day in 1994, when his oldest brother, Bashir, left an open Quran beside him.

"I was watching TV when Bashir told me to look at the Quran," Sims said. "I said, 'I'm not reading no Quran. I'm Christian.' But after he left, I picked it up and read a little. It started to open my eyes up.

"It teaches you how to be humble, how to have patience in things, how not to be so aggressive," he said. "If you do wrong and treat people wrong, you will end up in hellfire. I don't want to go there. It took 15 minutes, and I knew I'd become Muslim."

Simms said that for him, Islam was an awakening. "When I was 17, I used to be in a gang, selling drugs in South Philly," he said. "Then I realized, when a mother buys drugs with the food money, it's destroying our community.

"I had the courage to tell the gang, 'I'm done. I've got a baby on the way. I'm a man. I have to do what I have to do. I'm not doing this no more.' "

Simms credits Islam for his changed perspective. "Since I became a Muslim, I have the mentality of helping people," he said. "When you see people fall down, you pick them up."

When he and his brother opened S&Q Halal Hoagies a year ago, Simms said, "we were told, 'Black people are not going to support you. Black people don't support each other.' "

Not true, Simms said. "When we first opened, we gave sandwiches out to everybody," he said. "People come in and they may be a little short, we feed them. They are not going to forget that."

Kindness, he said, has been the key to neighbors accepting his faith. "People see how we carry ourselves," Simms said, "and they're not afraid to find out about Islam."

Isam K. Smith, 61, said he "made a bad decision" as a teenager back in 1974, when he was the lookout for a flower shop robbery that turned into a homicide.

He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

"I became a Muslim in prison," Smith said. "I was 19. I prayed several times a day, but I always wondered if I was really praying to get out of prison. I didn't know it would take 38 years."

Smith spent his decades in prison participating in "scared straight" programs, warning at-risk youths to avoid the mistakes he made.

Smith's sentence was commuted by then-Gov. Ed Rendell in 2010. He has worked ever since with his sister, CEO Malika Bey, at SUCCOR Inc., a West Philadelphia social services agency that helps families navigate the city's complex court system.

"All being Muslim has done for me," Smith said, "is make me a better person."

geringd@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @DanGeringer