Idealistic teen longed to see Iraqi conflict for himself


Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.

He was born into money and privilege, the son of immigrant parents who came to this country from Iraq looking for freedom and a better life.

They found it, amassing wealth that gave him a home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, tuition to a prestigious prep school and a $50,000 Infiniti for his 16th birthday.

But Farris Hassan, a tall and lanky straight-A student who loves to debate world politics and shuns typical teenage hangouts, didn't want it.

He left his bedroom unadorned, kept his friends few and, two weeks ago, stunned those who knew him by walking away from his life here. The teen boarded a plane to the Middle East alone, knowing the journey he embarked on might kill him. His ultimate destination: Baghdad. His plan: to stand with those struggling for democracy in Iraq.

As family and schoolmates awaited his safe return from Baghdad this weekend, they described a young man who feels guilty about the comfort he enjoys, who is brilliant but foolhardy, a boy brimming with idealism and the desire to make a difference.

According to his father, an anesthesiologist, the teen spent two weeks traveling from Kuwait City to Beirut to Baghdad. He interviewed soldiers and everyday citizens to understand their plight, before walking into a war zone office of the Associated Press news agency, which called the U.S. Embassy, already on the lookout for him.

Officials took him into custody Wednesday and put him on a plane to begin the long trip home Friday, the Associated Press reported. The State Department warns Americans against traveling to Iraq, although it is legal.

"He wouldn't take it from anyone else. He had to see for himself," said his mother, Shatha Atiya, a psychologist, who said she was furious and terrified when she first learned where her boy was headed. On Friday, media gathered outside his mother's home hoping for interviews with the family. The likes of the BBC, FOX News, ABC World News Tonight and Teen People all want to know just who this young man is.

According to family and schoolmates, Hassan is an honors student at Pine Crest School, an expensive preparatory in Fort Lauderdale that is often a gateway to the Ivy Leagues. A junior, standing 6-foot-2, he is enrolled in several Advanced Placement classes, is a member of the debate team and Renaissance Club and is a vocal Republican.

"He was kind of unusual," said Chris Rudolf, 17, who eats lunch with Hassan. "He wasn't really popular, but everyone knew him. He was shy about most things until you started talking about something he was passionate about. He was very passionate about the war in Iraq."

After leaving for the Middle East, Hassan sent out an e-mail in opposition of terrorism, saying more people needed to get involved in the Iraqi struggle for democracy - people like him. He wrote:

"To love is not a passive thing. ... When I love, I do something, I function, I give myself. When I do that, I am freed from guilt. Love and kindness are never wasted. They always make a difference. ... I want to experience during my Christmas the same hardships ordinary Iraqis experience everyday."

A Muslim, his interest in Iraq grew from his family background - both of his parents were born there - and his voracious appetite for books and current events. The only reason he joined the football team his sophomore year, his uncle said, was to round out his college resume:

"He's not your typical teenager," said Ahmad Hassan.

Farris Hassan is also the youngest of four children and unusually independent, said his eldest brother, Hayder Hassan. His siblings went to college; his parents divorced.

"Basically, he grew up doing everything for himself, and I think this was all to show us he could do this too," Hayder Hassan said. "It was to prove something to us, that he's not a little kid."

Former football teammate Michael Matthews recalled that before Farris Hassan got his driver's license, he would take taxis to football practice. His parents, said the high school senior, were frequently working or traveling the world. Hassan's parents also gave him money to trade stocks, which he did successfully. He had his own credit cards.

"He's very much independent and on his own and self confident," Matthews said.

When rumors about his trip began to spread at school - Hassan skipped a week of classes before winter break started - classmates were dubious. "We thought it was a little joke. I mean, we get in trouble for sneaking out of our house to go to the movies," said Anjali Sharma, who attended classes with Hassan last year.

When students realized the story was true, some said they didn't know whether to think Hassan was extremely brave or extremely stupid. Earlier this year, schoolmates said, he was assigned to write an essay on something he felt strongly about and also learned about immersion journalism. That's what he was doing in Iraq, they said.

"Some people thought it was just so cool that he wanted to get involved, and others were scared because it was such a dangerous trip," said student Tulsie Patel. The boy's father says Pine Crest in no way encouraged his son to go to Iraq. He said he had planned to take his son there this summer as an extension of a school project, but that his son was too impatient and took off on his own. Once the boy arrived in Kuwait City, he attempted to cross the border into Iraq by taxi, his father said. When Hassan found the border closed, he called his dad who, while furious, says he gave his son the option of coming home or staying with family friends in Beirut for a week until the border opened and private security could be arranged.

Redha Hassan said he was lenient with his son because of the boy's passion and his own past, which could not be verified independently. The elder Hassan said that when he was 14 and living in Iraq, he became active in a resistance movement against Saddam Hussein, including an assassination attempt on the toppled leader.

Records show that in 1985, Redha Hassan, living in South Florida, was charged in connection with a scheme to print false Iraqi passports and military identification cards. A judge later dropped the charges. At the time, Hassan told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that his brother was executed and family members were kicked out of Iraq without papers, and that he wanted to help others similarly dispossessed. Redha Hassan says he didn't want to kill his son's passion to help the democracy movement. "He wanted to show he was braver than me," the father said. Once he learned of his son's plans, Redha Hassan said he arranged for the boy to fly into Baghdad and be met by private security and taken to a local hotel so he could fulfill his quest. But when the boy entered the Associated Press office on Tuesday, he was alone and said his parents did not know where he was, the news agency reported.

In contrast to the father's story, a U.S. government official speaking on the condition of anonymity to the Associated Press said it was the U.S. military who kept the boy safe.

The teen left Baghdad on Friday, said Navy Commander Robert Mulac, who works in the Multi-National Force-Iraq press office in Baghdad. When the boy arrives in South Florida, he will face a media circus and punishment for his unapproved trip. His mother says she is grounding him, taking away his passport and credit cards. He also faces a disciplinary hearing at Pine Crest for missing school, although he won't be expelled.

"Obviously there have to be consequences," said school president Lourdes Cowgill. "He could have gotten himself killed."

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