U.S. teen goes secretly to Iraq for firsthand look

December 30, 2005|By JAMIE MALERNEE AND KEVIN SMITH | JAMIE MALERNEE AND KEVIN SMITH,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A 16-year-old determined to witness Iraq's struggle for democracy firsthand secretly hopped a plane to the Middle East alone and eventually made it to Baghdad - frightening his parents and stunning officials who consider it one of the most dangerous places on Earth - before agreeing to return to Fort Lauderdale.

The teen, American-born Farris Hassan, a junior at the exclusive Pine Crest School, is the youngest child of a physician. He and his father, Redha Hassan, who was born in Iraq, had been planning a trip to the country together this summer as an extension of a school project.

But Farris, headstrong and full of passion, didn't want to wait, his father said yesterday, so he secretly bought a plane ticket with his savings and flew to Kuwait about two weeks ago.

The only notification his son left him was an e-mail, Redha Hassan said.

"He said, `Don't worry about me, I will be safe,'" his father recalled. "I said to myself, `You have no idea what you're getting yourself into.' For $100, they kidnap people. The suicide bombers, they look for foreigners. He's young, with an American passport and doesn't speak a word of Arabic."

Soon after Hassan began frantically calling U.S. officials to try to locate his son, he learned of another e-mail the teen sent to people from school, explaining his sudden departure.

In the e-mail, he wrote:

"There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil, between those striving for freedom and liberty and those striving for death and destruction. You are aware of the heinous acts of the terrorists. ... For their goals to be thwarted, decent individuals must answer justice's call for help. ... So I will.

Farris traveled through the Middle East for two weeks before walking into an office of the Associated Press in Baghdad. The news service immediately called the U.S. Embassy.

"I would have been less surprised if little green men walked in," said Editor Patrick Quinn.

Few details of the teen's journey could be confirmed through official channels. But Navy Cmdr. Robert Mulac, who works in the MultiForces Iraq Press Office in Baghdad, said last night that the boy is now staying at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

"He's here, and he's safe. The only reason he probably got away with it without getting killed is because he looks native," Mulac said. "We're going to send him home."

The State Department warns Americans not to travel to Iraq.

"Although the restrictions on the use of U.S. passport travel to, in, or through Iraq have been lifted, travel to Iraq remains extremely dangerous," a government Web site reads.

According to the AP, Farris was alone when he walked into a war zone office in Baghdad. He told them he was in Iraq to do humanitarian and research work as an extension of a school project in immersion journalism.

According to the AP, which interviewed the boy, his parents were not sure of his exact whereabouts. The news agency reported that the 101st Airborne will escort the teen out of Iraq. Noting security concerns, neither Mulac nor the boy's family would discuss details of his return.

In the meantime, his family remains in an uproar.

"I'm furious with him," said elder brother Hayder Hassan, 23. "He knows the ass whuppin' he's going to get."

At the same time, relatives were somewhat proud of the boy despite his recklessness. They described him as a straight-A student and voracious reader who was interested in television only to watch news or the History Channel. His parents are divorced.

His bedroom at his father's home, a condominium overlooking the ocean in Lauderdale By the Sea, is sparsely furnished with a bed, dresser, computer and a single debate trophy.

A bookshelf contains books on stocks - he trades on his own and, according to his family, does quite well - and others on physics, European history, the Quran, and a volume titled the The Art of Fact.

Said his uncle, Ahmad Hassan of Fort Lauderdale: "He's not your typical teenager."

Jamie Malernee and Kevin Smith write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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