AP Exclusive: U.S. teen runs off to Iraq
Posted on Thu, Dec. 29, 2005
AP Exclusive: U.S. teen runs off to Iraq
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."