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For scion of privilege, a search for truth

US teenager embarked on journey to Iraq 'to see for himself'

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- He was born into money and privilege. He was the son of immigrants who came from Iraq, looking for freedom and a better life.

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

But Farris Hassan, tall and lanky, and a straight-A student who debates world politics and shuns typical teenage hangouts, did not want it.

He left his bedroom unadorned, and he kept his friends few. And, two weeks ago, he stunned those who knew him by walking away from his comfortable life in Fort Lauderdale.

Hassan boarded a plane to the Middle East alone, understanding the risks of the journey. His destination: Baghdad. His plan: to stand with those struggling for democracy in Iraq.

As family and school members awaited his return from Baghdad this weekend, they described a young man who seemed to feel guilty about his comfort, who appeared to be brilliant but foolhardy, who is filled with idealism and a desire to make a difference.

Yesterday, Farris Hassan gave a thumbs-up to reporters as he walked, surrounded by family members, to a car waiting outside Miami International Airport.

''He's very overwhelmed. I don't think he had any idea about all the media coverage," his mother, Shatha Atiya, told reporters gathered outside her Fort Lauderdale home. ''He's just tired, he wants to rest."

Atiya said Farris Hassan planned to spend last night at his father's home. She declined to comment further about his journey or the reaction.

Hassan spent two weeks traveling from Kuwait City to Beirut to Baghdad. He interviewed soldiers and citizens to understand their plight, before walking into a war zone office of the Associated Press, which called the US Embassy, already on the lookout for him.

Officials took him into custody last 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 found out where her son was headed.

On Friday, media gathered outside Atiya's home, hoping for interviews with the family. The likes of the BBC, FOX News, ABC World News Tonight, and Teen People seemed to want to know just a little bit more about who this young man is.

According to family members and schoolmates, Hassan is an honors student at Pine Crest School, an expensive preparatory institution in Fort Lauderdale that is often a gateway to the schools of the Ivy League. A junior, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall, he is easily noted.

Hassan has 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 often 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," Rudolf said in an interview.

After leaving for the Middle East, Hassan sent out an e-mail opposing 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."

As a Muslim, Farris Hassan became interested in Iraq from his family background; both of his parents were born there.

The reason he joined the football team in his sophomore year, his uncle said, was to round out his college résumé: ''He's not your typical teenager," said Ahmad Hassan.

Farris Hassan is also the youngest of four children, and he is 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 in an interview. ''It was to prove something to us, that he's not a little kid."

A former football teammate and senior, Michael Matthews, recalled that before Farris Hassan got his driver's license, he took taxis to football practice.

His parents, Matthew said, were frequently working or traveling. 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 in an interview.

When rumors about his trip began spread at school -- Hassan skipped a week of classes before winter break started -- classmates voiced some doubts.

''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 heard that the story was true, some said they did not know whether to think Hassan was extremely brave or extremely stupid. Schoolmates said he had been assigned to write an essay on something he felt strongly about, and had learned about immersion journalism. That was 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 a student, Tulsie Patel.

Farris Hassan's father said that Pine Crest had 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 apparently took off on his own.

Once Farris Hassan arrived in Kuwait City, he tried to cross the border into Iraq by taxi, his father said. When Hassan found the border closed, he called his dad who said he gave his son the option of coming home or staying with family friends in Beirut for a week, until the border could be 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.

The elder Hassan said that when he was 14 and living in Iraq, he became active in a movement against Saddam Hussein, including an assassination attempt.

Records have reported 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 said in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that his brother had been executed, that family members had been evicted from Iraq without papers, and that he wanted to help others who had faced similar plight.

Redha Hassan says he did not 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 youth to fly into Baghdad and to be met by private security, and to be taken to a local hotel. But when the boy entered the Associated Press office last 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 US government official said it was the US military who kept the boy safe.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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