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AP Exclusive: U.S. teen runs off to Iraq

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/special_packages/iraq/13509858.htm Posted on Thu, Dec. 29, 2005 AP Exclusive: U.S. teen runs off to Iraq JASON
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 29, 2005
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      http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/special_packages/iraq/13509858.htm

      Posted on Thu, Dec. 29, 2005
      AP Exclusive: U.S. teen runs off to Iraq
      JASON STRAZIUSO
      Associated Press

      BAGHDAD, Iraq - Maybe it was the time the taxi dumped
      him at the Iraq-Kuwait border, leaving him alone in
      the middle of the desert. Or when he drew a crowd at a
      Baghdad food stand after using an Arabic phrase book
      to order. Or the moment a Kuwaiti cab driver almost
      punched him in the face when he balked at the $100
      fare.

      But at some point, Farris Hassan, a 16-year-old from
      Florida, realized that traveling to Iraq by himself
      was not the safest thing he could have done with his
      Christmas vacation.

      And he didn't even tell his parents.

      Hassan's dangerous adventure winds down with the 101st
      Airborne delivering the Fort Lauderdale teen to the
      U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which had been on the lookout
      for him and promises to see him back to the United
      States this weekend.

      It begins with a high school class on "immersion
      journalism" and one overly eager - or naively
      idealistic - student who's lucky to be alive after
      going way beyond what any teacher would ask.

      As a junior this year at a Pine Crest School, a prep
      academy of about 700 students in Fort Lauderdale,
      Hassan studied writers like John McPhee in the book
      "The New Journalism," an introduction to immersion
      journalism - a writer who lives the life of his
      subject in order to better understand it.

      Diving headfirst into an assignment, Hassan, whose
      parents were born in Iraq but have lived in the United
      States for about 35 years, hung out at a local mosque.
      The teen, who says he has no religious affiliation,
      added that he even spent an entire night until 6 a.m.
      talking politics with a group of Muslim men, a level
      of "immersion" his teacher characterized as dangerous
      and irresponsible.

      The next trimester his class was assigned to choose an
      international topic and write editorials about it,
      Hassan said. He chose the Iraq war and decided to
      practice immersion journalism there, too, though he
      knows his school in no way endorses his travels.

      "I thought I'd go the extra mile for that, or rather,
      a few thousand miles," he told The Associated Press.

      Using money his parents had given him at one point, he
      bought a $900 plane ticket and took off from school a
      week before Christmas vacation started, skipping
      classes and leaving the country on Dec. 11.

      His goal: Baghdad. Those privy to his plans: two high
      school buddies.

      Given his heritage, Hassan could almost pass as Iraqi.
      His father's background helped him secure an entry
      visa, and native Arabs would see in his face Iraqi
      features and a familiar skin tone. His wispy beard was
      meant to help him blend in.

      But underneath that Mideast veneer was full-blooded
      American teen, a born-and-bred Floridian sporting
      white Nike tennis shoes and trendy jeans. And as soon
      as the lanky, 6-foot teenager opened his mouth - he
      speaks no Arabic - his true nationality would have
      betrayed him.

      Traveling on his own in a land where insurgents and
      jihadists have kidnapped more than 400 foreigners,
      killing at least 39 of them, Hassan walked straight
      into a death zone. On Monday, his first full day in
      Iraq, six vehicle bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing
      five people and wounding more than 40.

      The State Department strongly advises U.S. citizens
      against traveling to Iraq, saying it "remains very
      dangerous." Forty American citizens have been
      kidnapped since the war started in March 2003, of
      which 10 have been killed, a U.S. official said. About
      15 remain missing.

      "Travel warnings are issued for countries that are
      considered especially dangerous for Americans, and one
      of the strongest warnings covers travel to Iraq," said
      Elizabeth Colton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy
      in Baghdad.

      Colton said the embassy's consular section can provide
      only limited help to Americans in Iraq, though once
      officials learn of a potentially dangerous situation
      every effort is made to assist.

      Inside the safety of Baghdad's Green Zone, an Embassy
      official from the Hostage Working Group talked to
      Hassan about how risky travel is in Iraq.

      "This place is incredibly dangerous to individual
      private American citizens, especially minors, and all
      of us, especially the military, went to extraordinary
      lengths to ensure this youth's safety, even if he
      doesn't acknowledge it or even understand it," a U.S.
      official who wasn't authorized to speak to the media
      said on condition of anonymity.

      Hassan's extra.m.ile attitude took him east through
      eight time zones, from Fort Lauderdale to Kuwait City.
      His plan was to take a taxi across the border and
      ultimately to Baghdad - an unconventional, expensive
      and utterly dangerous route.

      It was in Kuwait City that he first called his parents
      to tell them of his plans - and that he was now in the
      Middle East.

      His mother, Shatha Atiya, a psychologist, said she was
      "shocked and terrified." She had told him she would
      take him to Iraq, but only after the country
      stabilizes.

      "He thinks he can be an ambassador for democracy
      around the world. It's admirable but also agony for a
      parent," Atiya said.

      Attempting to get into Iraq, Hassan took a taxi from
      Kuwait City to the border 55 miles away. He spoke
      English at the border and was soon surrounded by about
      15 men, a scene he wanted no part of. On the drive
      back to Kuwait City, a taxi driver almost punched him
      when he balked at the fee.

      "In one day I probably spent like $250 on taxis," he
      said. "And they're so evil too, because they ripped me
      off, and when I wouldn't pay the ripped-off price they
      started threatening me. It was bad."

      It could have been worse - the border could have been
      open.

      As luck would have it, the teenager found himself at
      the Iraq-Kuwait line sometime on Dec. 13, and the
      border security was extra tight because of Iraq's Dec.
      15 parliamentary elections. The timing saved him from
      a dangerous trip.

      "If they'd let me in from Kuwait, I probably would
      have died," he acknowledged. "That would have been a
      bad idea."

      He again called his father, who told him to come home.
      But the teen insisted on going to Baghdad. His father
      advised him to stay with family friends in Beirut,
      Lebanon, so he flew there, spending 10 days before
      flying to Baghdad on Christmas.

      His ride at Baghdad International Airport, arranged by
      the family friends in Lebanon, dropped him off at an
      international hotel where Americans were staying.

      He says he only strayed far from that hotel once, in
      search of food. He walked into a nearby shop and asked
      for a menu. When no menu appeared, he pulled out his
      Arabic phrase book, and after fumbling around found
      the word "menu." The stand didn't have one. Then a
      worker tried to read some of the English phrases.

      "And I'm like, 'Well, I should probably be going.' It
      was not a safe place. The way they were looking at me
      kind of freaked me out," he said.

      It was mid-afternoon Tuesday, after his second night
      in Baghdad, that he sought out editors at The
      Associated Press and announced he was in Iraq to do
      research and humanitarian work. AP staffers had never
      seen an unaccompanied teenage American walk into their
      war zone office. ("I would have been less surprised if
      little green men had walked in," said editor Patrick
      Quinn.)

      Wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt in addition to his
      jeans and sneakers, Hassan appeared eager and outgoing
      but slightly sheepish about his situation.

      The AP quickly called the U.S. embassy.

      Embassy officials had been on the lookout for Hassan,
      at the request of his parents, who still weren't sure
      exactly where he was. One U.S. military officer said
      he was shocked the teen was still alive. The 101st
      Airborne lieutenant who picked him up from the hotel
      said it was the wildest story he'd ever heard.

      Hassan accepted being turned over to authorities as
      the safest thing to do, but seemed to accept the idea
      more readily over time.

      Most of Hassan's wild tale could not be corroborated,
      but his larger story arc was in line with details
      provided by friends and family members back home.

      Dangerous and dramatic, Hassan's trip has also been
      educational. He had tea with Kuwaitis under a tent in
      the middle of a desert. He says he interviewed
      Christians in south Lebanon. And he said he spoke with
      U.S. soldiers guarding his Baghdad hotel who told him
      they are treated better by Sunni Arabs - the minority
      population that enjoyed a high standing under Saddam
      Hussein and are now thought to fuel the insurgency -
      than by the majority Shiites.

      His father, Redha Hassan, a doctor, said his son is an
      idealist, principled and moral. Aside from the
      research he wanted to accomplish, he also wrote in an
      essay saying he wanted to volunteer in Iraq.

      He said he wrote half the essay while in the United
      States, half in Kuwait, and e-mailed it to his
      teachers Dec. 15 while in the Kuwait City airport.

      "There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil,
      between those striving for freedom and liberty and
      those striving for death and destruction," he wrote.

      "Those terrorists are not human but pure evil. For
      their goals to be thwarted, decent individuals must
      answer justice's call for help. Unfortunately altruism
      is always in short supply. Not enough are willing to
      set aside the material ambitions of this transient
      world, put morality first, and risk their lives for
      the cause of humanity. So I will."

      "I want to experience during my Christmas the same
      hardships ordinary Iraqis experience everyday, so that
      I may better empathize with their distress," he wrote.

      Farris Hassan says he thinks a trip to the Middle East
      is a healthy vacation compared with a trip to Colorado
      for holiday skiing.

      "You go to, like, the worst place in the world and
      things are terrible," he said. "When you go back home
      you have such a new appreciation for all the blessing
      you have there, and I'm just going to be, like,
      ecstatic for life."

      His mother, however, sees things differently.

      "I don't think I will ever leave him in the house
      alone again," she said. "He showed a lack of
      judgment."

      Hassan may not mind, at least for a while. He now
      understands how dangerous his trip was, that he was
      only a whisker away from death.

      His plans on his return to Florida: "Kiss the ground
      and hug everyone."
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