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For teen, an enlightening and dangerous trip to Iraq

Officials say Fla. student is lucky to be alive

BAGHDAD -- Maybe it was the time the taxi dumped him at the Iraq-Kuwait border, leaving him alone in the middle of the desert. Or when he drew a crowd at a Baghdad food stand after using an Arabic phrase book to order. Or the moment a Kuwaiti cab driver almost punched him in the face when he balked at the $100 fare.

But at some point, Farris Hassan, a 16-year-old from Florida, realized that traveling to Iraq by himself was not the safest thing he could have done with his Christmas vacation.

And he didn't even tell his parents.

Hassan's dangerous adventure winds down with the 101st Airborne delivering the Fort Lauderdale teen to the US embassy in Baghdad, which had been on the lookout for him and promises to see him back to the United States this weekend.

It begins with a high school class on ''immersion journalism" and one overly eager -- or naively idealistic -- student who's lucky to be alive after going way beyond what any teacher would ask.

As a junior this year at the Pine Crest School, a prep academy of about 700 students in Fort Lauderdale, Hassan studied writers like John McPhee in the book ''The New Journalism," an introduction to immersion journalism -- a writer who lives the life of his subject in order to better understand it.

Diving headfirst into an assignment, Hassan, whose parents were born in Iraq but have lived in the United States for about 35 years, hung out at a local mosque.

Using money his parents had given him at one point, he bought a $900 plane ticket and took off from school a week before Christmas vacation started, leaving the country on Dec. 11.

His goal: Baghdad. Those privy to his plans: two high school buddies.

Given his heritage, Hassan could almost pass as Iraqi. His father's background helped him secure an entry visa, and native Arabs would see in his face Iraqi features and a familiar skin tone. His wispy beard was meant to help him blend in.

But underneath that Mideast veneer was full-blooded American teen, sporting white Nike tennis shoes and trendy jeans. And as soon as the lanky, 6-foot teenager opened his mouth -- he speaks no Arabic -- his true nationality would have betrayed him.

Traveling on his own in a land where insurgents and jihadists have kidnapped more than 400 foreigners, killing at least 39 of them, Hassan walked straight into a death zone. On Monday, his first full day in Iraq, six vehicle bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing five people.

Inside the safety of Baghdad's Green Zone, an embassy official from the Hostage Working Group talked to Hassan about how risky travel is in Iraq.

''This place is incredibly dangerous to individual private American citizens, especially minors, and all of us, especially the military, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure this youth's safety, even if he doesn't acknowledge it or even understand it," a US official who wasn't authorized to speak to the media said on condition of anonymity.

It was in Kuwait City that he first called his parents to tell them of his plans -- and that he was in the Middle East.

Attempting to get into Iraq, Hassan took a taxi from Kuwait City to the border 55 miles away. He spoke English at the border and was soon surrounded by about 15 men, a scene he wanted no part of. On the drive back to Kuwait City, a taxi driver almost punched him when he balked at the fee.

As luck would have it, the teenager found himself at the Iraq-Kuwait line sometime on Dec. 13, and the border security was extra tight because of Iraq's Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. The timing saved him from a dangerous trip.

He again called his father, who told him to come home. But the teen insisted on going to Baghdad. His father advised him to stay with family friends in Beirut, Lebanon, so he flew there, spending 10 days before flying to Baghdad on Christmas.

His ride at Baghdad International Airport, arranged by the family friends in Lebanon, dropped him off at a hotel where Americans were staying.

He says he only strayed far from that hotel once, in search of food. He walked into a nearby shop and asked for a menu. When no menu appeared, he pulled out his Arabic phrase book, and after fumbling around found the word ''menu." The stand didn't have one. Then a worker tried to read some of the English phrases.

''And I'm like, 'Well, I should probably be going.' It was not a safe place. The way they were looking at me kind of freaked me out," he said.

It was mid-afternoon on Tuesday, after his second night in Baghdad, that he sought out editors at The Associated Press and announced he was in Iraq to do research and humanitarian work.

Hassan appeared eager and outgoing but slightly sheepish about his situation. The AP quickly called the US embassy.

One US military officer said he was shocked the teen was still alive.

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