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US: Teen skips out, drops in for first-hand look at war in Iraq

BAGHDAD - 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 Fort Lauderdale, 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 -- who were ''shocked and terrified'' when Farris called from the Middle East.

Farris' dangerous adventure winds down with the 101st Airborne delivering the teen to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which had been on the lookout for him, and his expected arrival home Sunday night.

It begins with a high school class on ''immersion journalism'' and one overly eager -- or naively idealistic -- student who's lucky to be alive.

As a junior at Pine Crest School, Farris studied immersion journalism -- when a writer lives the life of his subject in order to better understand it.

Diving headfirst into an assignment to write editorials about the Iraq war, Farris, whose parents were born in Iraq but have lived in the United States for about 35 years, decided to ''go the extra mile for that, or rather, a few thousand miles,'' he said.

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

ONE GOAL IN MIND

Using money his parents had given him at one point, he bought a $900 plane ticket and -- telling no one but two school buddies -- left the country Dec. 11 with the goal of reaching Baghdad.

Given his heritage, Farris 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.

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

Farris' extra-mile 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 -- who confirmed her son's story to The Miami Herald -- said she and her husband were ``absolutely terrified . . . I have no idea [how he obtained a visa]. He thinks he can be an ambassador for democracy around the world. It's admirable but also agony for a parent.''

Attempting to get into Iraq, Farris 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.

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 said.

He again called home and his father, Redha Hassan, a doctor, told him to come back. But the teen insisted on going to Baghdad.

U.S. TEEN IN IRAQ

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 a 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 on Monday, 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,'' editor Patrick Quinn said.)

The AP quickly called the U.S. embassy.

Embassy officials had been on the lookout for Farris, 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.

Dangerous and dramatic, Farris' trip has also been educational. He said 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 than by the majority Shiites.

Farris says he learned a lot: ``You go to, like, the worst place in the world and things are terrible. When you go back home you have such a new appreciation for all the blessings 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.

--

Miami Herald staff writer Evan Benn contributed to this report.


=============

FROM A DIFFERENT ARTICLE:


When school officials learned of Hassan's trip, they threatened to expel him, but Atiya and Hassan's father, Redha Hassan, a physician, persuaded officials to allow him to remain, Atiya said. It was not immediately clear why they wanted to expel him.

Julie Schiedegger, who teaches English at Pine Crest, said Friday that she learned Hassan was headed to Iraq about two weeks ago when she overheard some students talking about it.

"He is very bright, friendly, respectful, just a good kid," she said.

Michael Buckwald, a 17-year-old classmate, said Hassan immerses himself in subjects that he likes and was opinionated in class.

"He always struck me as a very intellectual person. He's very outspoken at the same time," Buckwald said.

Hassan is the youngest of Atiya's four children. The others are enrolled at universities.

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.

Hassan told AP he understood how dangerous his trip was. He'd said that his plans on his return to Florida were to "kiss the ground and hug everyone."

---

http://usatoday.com/news/world...

And the essay that Farris wrote can be found here:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/w...

Posted by: SoulRiser
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Posted in: News by NewsBot on December 30, 2005 @ 12:00 AM

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