After Flight Back From Iraq, Teen to Be Grounded

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

He was born into money and privilege, the son of immigrants 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 lanky, 6-foot-2 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 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.

His father, Redha Hassan, an anesthesiologist, said Farris 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 Associated Press. The news agency called the U.S. Embassy, which was already on the lookout for Farris.

Officials took him into custody Wednesday and put him on a plane to begin the long trip home Friday. The U.S. 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 therapist, who said she was furious and terrified when she learned where her son was headed.

Members of the media gathered outside Atiya's home hoping for interviews with the family. The BBC, FOX News, ABC World News Tonight and Teen People all wanted to know who this young man was.

Family and classmates said Farris was a junior at Pine Crest School, a Fort Lauderdale prep school that is often a gateway to the Ivy League. He is enrolled in several Advanced Placement classes, is a member of the debate team and the Renaissance Club, and is a vocal Republican.

"He was kind of unusual," said Chris Rudolf, 17, who eats lunch with Farris. "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, Farris sent 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 a 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 every day."

Farris is a Muslim, and his interest in Iraq grew from his family background -- 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," Ahmad Hassan said.

The youngest of four children, Farris is unusually independent, said his eldest brother, Hayder Hassan. His siblings went off 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 got his driver's license, he would take taxis to practice. Matthews said the teen's parents were frequently working or traveling. Farris' 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 -- Farris 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 had classes with Farris last year.

When students realized the story was true, some said they didn't know whether to think Farris 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 he 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," student Tulsie Patel said.

Farris' father said Pine Crest in no way encouraged his son to go to Iraq. Redha Hassan said that 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 Farris arrived in Kuwait City, Kuwait, he tried to cross into Iraq by taxi, his father said. When Farris found the border closed, he called his father, who says now that he was furious but 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 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 now deposed 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 Sun-Sentinel that his brother had been executed and family members were kicked out of Iraq without papers, and that he wanted to help others similarly dispossessed.

Redha Hassan said he didn't want to kill his son's passion to help the democracy movement. "He wanted to show he was braver than me," Hassan said.

Once he learned of Farris' plans, 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 Tuesday, he was alone and said his parents did not know where he was, the news agency reported.

In contrast to Hassan's story, a U.S. government official speaking on the condition of anonymity to Associated Press said it was the U.S. military who kept Farris 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 said she was going to ground him and take away his passport and credit cards. He also faces a disciplinary hearing at Pine Crest for missing school, though he won't be expelled.

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

Associated Press and Sun-Sentinel staff researcher William Lucey contributed to this report.

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