A 16-year-old determined to witness Iraq's struggle for democracy firsthand secretly hopped a plane to the Middle East alone and eventually made it to Baghdad -- frightening his parents and stunning officials who consider it one of the most dangerous places on Earth -- before agreeing to return home to Fort Lauderdale.
The teen, American-born Farris Hassan, a junior at the exclusive Pine Crest School, is the youngest child of a Lauderdale-by-the-Sea physician. He and his father, Redha Hassan, who was born in Iraq, had been planning a trip to the country together this summer as an extension of a school project.
But headstrong and full of passion, his father said Thursday, his son didn't want to wait, so he secretly bought a plane ticket with his own savings and flew to Kuwait about two weeks ago.
The only notification his son left him, said Redha Hassan, was an e-mail.
"He said, `Don't worry about me, I will be safe,'" his father recalled. "I said to myself, `You have no idea what you're getting yourself into.' For $100, they kidnap people. The suicide bombers, they look for foreigners. He's young, with an American passport and doesn't speak a word of Arabic."
Soon after the father began frantically calling U.S. government officials to try and locate his son, he said, he learned of another e-mail the teen sent to others explaining his sudden departure.
In this e-mail, he wrote:
"There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil,between those striving for freedom and liberty and those striving for death and destruction. You are aware of the heinous acts of the terrorists ... For their goals to be thwarted, decent individuals must answer justice's call for help ... So I will.
"I know I can't do much. I know I can't stop all the carnage and save the innocent. But I also know I can't just sit here ... I feel guilty living in a big house, driving a nice car, and going to a great school. I feel guilty hanging out with friends in a cafe without the fear of a suicide bomber present. I feel guilty enjoying the multitude of blessings, which I did nothing to deserve, while people in Iraq, many of them much better then me, are in terrible anguish. Going to Iraq will broaden my mind ... I will go there to love and help my neighbor in distress, if that endangers my life, so be it ..."
The teen traveled throughout the Middle East for two weeks before walking into a war zone office of The Associated Press news agency in Baghdad on Tuesday. The Associated Press immediately called the U.S. Embassy.
"I would have been less surprised if little green men walked in," editor Patrick Quinn said.
Few details of the teen's journey during the two weeks prior could be confirmed through official channels. But Navy Cmdr. Robert Mulac, who works in the Multi-National Force-Iraq press office in Baghdad, said Thursday night that the youth was staying at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"He's here, and he's safe. The only reason he probably got away with it without getting killed is because he looks native," Mulac said. "We're going to send him home."
The State Department bluntly warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Iraq.
"Although the restrictions on the use of U.S. passport travel to, in, or through Iraq have been lifted, travel to Iraq remains extremely dangerous," a government Website says. The teen could not be reached for comment. Here's what the boy's father says unfolded once he left South Florida:
After Farris Hassan landed in Kuwait City, the teen attempted to get into Iraq by taking a taxi across the border. He couldn't cross because of the security surrounding Iraq's elections, and called his father.
"I said, `You go to the [American] Embassy right now! The border is closed," the father recalled. "He said, Yes Sir! Yes, Dad!"
Then something even more extraordinary happened. Instead of ordering his son home, Redha Hassan said he gave him the choice to go to Beirut for a week to stay with family friends, and then go to Baghdad once the border opened and private security could be arranged.
"I felt it would leave a scar, disappointing him in his young life," Redha Hassan said of sending his son home. "I learned long ago that if you say no, they stick to the point and insist on doing it. Nothing fazed him."
The teen chose to stay, he said, going to Beirut, where he interviewed Israeli and Lebanese border guards and spent Christmas night in a church interviewing Christians. Soon after, Redha Hassan said he flew his son to Baghdad International Airport, where private security personnel took him to a safe hotel. Redha Hassan said he was able to arrange security through political connections he had as a result of being active in a resistance movement against Saddam Hussein during his youth.
But if there was security, it didn't work too well. According to The Associated Press, Farris Hassan was alone when he marched into a war zone office where AP staffers were based. He told them he was in Iraq to do humanitarian and research work as an extension of a school project in immersion journalism.
The AP quickly called the U.S. Embassy. According to the AP, which interviewed the teen, his parents were not sure of his exact whereabouts. The news agency also reported that the 101st Airborne will escort the teen out of Iraq. His mother said he is expected to return Sunday.
In the meantime, his family awaits his return, juggling feelings of relief, anger and pride at his idealism.
"I'm furious with him," said his older brother, Hayder Hassan, 23. "He knows the ass-whoopin' he's going to get."
Relatives described the teen as a straight-A student and a voracious reader who was interested in television only to watch the news or the History Channel. His parents are divorced.
In his bedroom at his father's home, a luxurious condo overlooking the ocean in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, his room is nearly indistinguishable from that of an adult, simply adorned with a globe and a debate trophy.
The home also contains two photographs of the elder Hassan, an anesthesiologist at Broward General Medical Center, with Hillary Clinton. At his mother's home, a Fort Lauderdale mansion not far from Las Olas Boulevard, simplicity also reigns. A bookshelf in his bedroom contains books on stocks -- he trades on his own and, according to family, does quite well -- as well as books on Advanced Place physics and European history, the Holy Qu'ran, and a volume titled the The Art of Fact.
His mother, Shatha Atiya, said when he returns, her son will have to face some new facts of life. His stock account and credit cards will be frozen. And that's just the beginning.
"He's going to lose his autonomy for a while -- and his passport for sure.