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After Flight Back From Iraq, Teen to Be Grounded

Floridian Farris Hassan stunned his family and classmates with a solo trip to the war zone.

January 01, 2006|Jamie Malernee, Kevin Smith and Karla Shores | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — 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.

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