BAGHDAD, Iraq – A 16-year-old from Florida who traveled to one of the world's most dangerous places without telling his parents left Baghdad on Friday to begin his journey home, the U.S. Embassy said, drawing to a close an adventure that could have cost him his life.
The mother of Farris Hassan, the prep school junior whom U.S. officials took custody of in Baghdad this week, said she was "grateful" he was headed back. Shatha Atiya said she already knew what her first words would be to her son.
"'Thank God you're alive,' then I'll collapse for a few hours and then sit down and have a long discussion about his consequences," she said in Fort Lauderdale.
Consul General Richard B. Hermann said Friday that Hassan "safely departed Baghdad." He reiterated warnings by the State Department and embassy against traveling to Iraq. Forty American citizens have been kidnapped since the war started in March 2003, of whom 10 have been killed, a U.S. official said. About 15 remain missing.
"This young American is now on his way back home to his family in the United States," Hermann said.
Hassan spoke to The Associated Press early Friday, several hours before the embassy announcement, and he was still under the impression that he would be following his personal travel itinerary, which had him leaving the country by himself on Sunday.
He hadn't even been aware that the story of his perilous travels was published around the world — or that his mother was being interviewed on television.
"I don't have any Internet access here in the Green Zone, so I have no idea what's going on," he said.
A military officer accompanying him, who did not identify himself, said it was his task to get Hassan "safe and sound to the United States."
The embassy refused to release any further details about his travel, and it wasn't known when he would arrive home in Florida.
Hassan has three older siblings who are all enrolled at universities. A brother, 23-year-old Hayder Hassan, called the trip "absolutely mind-boggling."
"I just want him back," he said.
Farris Hassan, who attends Pine Crest School, an academy of about 700 students in Fort Lauderdale, left the United States on Dec. 11 and traveled to Kuwait, where he thought he could take a taxi into Baghdad and witness the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
A strong history student, Hassan had recently studied immersion journalism — a writer who lives the life of his subject — and wanted to understand better what Iraqis are living through.
"I thought I'd go the extra mile for that, or rather, a few thousand miles," he told AP in an interview earlier this week.
The teenager was able to secure an entry visa because both of his parents were born in Iraq, though they've been in the United States for more than three decades.
Skipping a week of school, he only told two of his school friends he planned to leave the country. He didn't tell his parents until he arrived in Kuwait.
"He is very idealistic. He has many convictions. He is very pro-democracy, very compassionate, always helping out others, he's very driven," his mother said. "Those are more characteristics of Farris than adventurous. This is the first adventure he's been on."
He took his U.S. passport along with $1,800 in cash. He said the money came from a sum of $10,000 his mother had given him after he gave her some stock tips that earned a 25 percent return.
From Kuwait, a taxi dropped him in the desert at the Iraq border, but he could not cross there because of tightened security ahead of the elections. He went to Beirut, Lebanon, to stay with family friends, and flew from there to Baghdad on Christmas Day.
After his second night in Baghdad, he contacted the AP and said he had come to do research and humanitarian work. The AP called the U.S. Embassy, which sent U.S. soldiers to pick him up.
State Department officials then notified his parents.
The mother, Atiya, said she has a 60-year-old brother in Iraq but that she had refused when her son recently pestered her for his number. She said she offered to take her son to Iraq later, when tensions eased.
"I thought that would be sufficient for him, but he took it upon himself to do this adventure. He has a lot of confidence, but I never thought he would be able to pull this together," she said.
Hassan does not speak Arabic and has no experience in war zones, but he wanted to find out what life was like there.
Atiya said her son is studious, works on the school newspaper and is on the debate team. He is a member of a Republican Party club at school and spends his time reading rather than socializing, his mother said.
When school officials learned of Hassan's trip, they threatened to expel him, but Atiya and Hassan's father, Redha Hassan, a physician, persuaded officials to allow him to remain, she said. It was not immediately clear why they wanted to expel him.
Julie Schiedegger, who teaches English at Pine Crest, said Friday that she learned Hassan was headed to Iraq about two weeks ago when she overheard some students talking about it.
"He is very bright, friendly, respectful, just a good kid," she said.
Michael Buckwald, a 17-year-old classmate, said Hassan immerses himself in subjects that he likes and was opinionated in class.
"He always struck me as a very intellectual person. He's very outspoken at the same time," Buckwald said.