Thursday, December 29, 2005


U.S. Teen
Runs Off
To Iraq By
Himself


Meet 16 year old Fariss Hassan, a Junior at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Farris' parents were born in Iraq, but he grew up here in the U.S. His interests? Democracy and Immersion Journalism.

They must be passionate interests, because the kid ran off to Iraq by himself to report on what's going on:


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.

Hassan's 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, 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. 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."