Teen Travels on Own to Iraq for Class

Farris Hassan is a 16-year-old high school junior from Florida who went by himself to Iraq as a project for his class in immersion journalism. Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso talks about his encounter with the high school student.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Sixteen-year-old Farris Hassan is on his way home to Ft. Lauderdale today after traveling alone to Baghdad. He had studied immersion journalism in school and decided to immerse himself in Iraq. He left home without telling his parents, both of whom were born in Iraq. Hassan flew to Kuwait on December 11th. Later he went to Beirut, where he stayed with family friends. By this point his parents knew where he was; for some reason, no one made him get on a plane home. Instead on Christmas Day the teen-ager caught a flight into Baghdad. He spent two days at an international hotel outside the Green Zone, and that's where he made contact with The Associated Press and reporter Jason Straziuso.

Mr. JASON STRAZIUSO (The Associated Press): He came down from his floor and knocked on our doors and said, `Hi. I'm Farris. I am from Florida, and I want to see if I could talk to you.' He presented himself as someone who was here to do research. He was interested in journalism, maybe kind of an internship type person. But, really, we were just flabbergasted that a 16-year-old from the United States, by himself, had knocked on our door in the middle of a war zone. He was curious from the get-go. This was not anything about, `I'm in danger. Rescue me.' This was somebody who wanted to see what we were doing for a living.

BLOCK: Huh. So he wasn't planning to go home at this point; he just was trying to sort of reconnoiter a little bit.

Mr. STRAZIUSO: No, he had been in the region for more than two weeks. He wasn't thinking of going home. I think that at that point, though, he had been in Baghdad for just about two days, and I think that he knew how dangerous it was. You know, the first full day he was here, six car bombs went off in Baghdad; five people were killed and 40 were wounded. And he had an experience on his first or second day where he actually wandered out of the safe area of our hotel and went to a food stand. And it was at that food stand that he tried to order food, which is a big problem for Farris because he doesn't speak Arabic. And he actually pulled out an Arabic phrase book and tried to order using that. And he saw that he was drawing a lot of attention to himself, and he told me he was getting a little freaked out and quickly left that food stand. And that may have been his first situation in Baghdad where he thought, `OK, this is really risky.'

BLOCK: Well, what did you do? This 16-year-old lands literally on your doorstep, you realize he doesn't speak any Arabic, you don't know what he's doing there. How did you handle it?

Mr. STRAZIUSO: It was my colleague who first saw Farris, and it was probably within minutes after meeting him that he called the US Embassy and let embassy officials know that there was this teen-age American traveling by himself--a minor, mind you. He wasn't 19; he was 16. And embassy officials were very interested in his safety. You know, it was a short time later that a lieutenant from the 101st Airborne was in the lobby of our hotel to pick Farris up and take him to the Green Zone.

BLOCK: Why did he do this? What did he tell you about his motivation here?

Mr. STRAZIUSO: Well, he wrote an essay both--before he left and finished it in Kuwait, and it's really, really touching and from the heart for a 16-year-old. And he talks about the suffering that he sees in Iraq and that the only way to overcome that suffering is for people to get up and do something. This is just an idealistic teen-ager who's trying to make the world better. You can throw in naive and lucky, but idealistic also. He thought that he could come over here and do some good. Yet he wanted to do some academic research, but he said that he wanted to do humanitarian work. Had he done a little bit more research, he would have found out that that's really hard to do because there aren't a lot of humanitarian organizations here because it's just too dangerous.

BLOCK: Did he, do you think, endanger anyone else with his travels here? Did he endanger you, the folks in your office, the soldiers who had to take him in?

Mr. STRAZIUSO: Well, I don't think he endangered us. We have a security setup, and he in no way altered that. At the very least the 101st Airborne had to drive from the Green Zone to our hotel, put Farris in their vehicle and drive from our hotel to the Green Zone. Every time you're in a vehicle out in Baghdad, you risk being the target of a roadside bomb, an IED or a car bomb or a rocket-propelled grenade. So they're not saying that Farris cost them safety and security, but they are saying that they put considerable resources into making sure he was safe.

BLOCK: Well, Jason Straziuso, thanks so very much for talking with us.

Mr. STRAZIUSO: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jason Straziuso with The Associated Press in Baghdad.

Farris Hassan's mother says she's been worried sick. She told CBS television that when her son gets home, quote, "We are going to watch his every move."

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