Video: Exclusive Interview: Teen's Trip to Iraq

msnbc.com
updated 1/11/2006 4:40:34 PM ET 2006-01-11T21:40:34

In an exclusive interview, MSNBC’s Rita Cosby talks to Farris Hassan, the 16-year-old Florida boy who made worldwide headlines when he skipped school to suddenly travel to Iraq without even telling his own mother. Hassan finally broke his silence, sitting down with Rita Cosby for his first interview since arriving safely back in the United States.

On December 11, on his own, Farris left America on a 20-day trip which would take him to one of the most dangerous regions on earth.  Hassan tells Rita he was fully aware of the risks that he faced and that he had been planning his incredible and secret trip for more than a month.

RITA COSBY, HOST 'LIVE & DIRECT:  When exactly did you decide to go to Iraq?

FARRIS HASSAN, 16-YEAR-OLD WHO TRAVELED TO IRAQ:  I would say in November.  After seeing the news and the stress people were going through, I really felt compelled, and I was consumed by passion to do something, to go over there and volunteer for the Red Cross or something like—something along those lines to help the Iraqis rebuild their lives.  I was looking forward to help maybe dispersing some food or just bringing a smile or two to some children there.

COSBY:  Did you tell anybody about it?

HASSAN:  Yes.  I told two of my friends.  They‘re the closest people to me, closer to me than my family.

COSBY:  Did your parents know that you were going to the Middle East?

HASSAN:  I had spoken with my mother earlier about going to the Middle East, and she said, Possibly, if it gets safer.  I didn‘t really believe her when she said that, so from then on, I took matters into my own hands and I started planning the trip.

When I left, she had absolutely no idea what was going on.  And she, in fact, found out that I was not in school on Monday from the dean of students.  And she—the dean of students asked her, Where‘s Farris, and she said, I don‘t know.  I have no idea where he is.  And she was shocked when she got my e-mail, unfortunately.  That make me feel guilty, and I regret the grief I cause my family.

COSBY:  What about your dad?

HASSAN:  My dad did not have complete knowledge of all the specific of my plannings, but he knew a bit more than my mother.

COSBY:  But didn‘t know you were going to Iraq on that date, to that degree?

HASSAN:  Yes.

COSBY:  He did not know that?

HASSAN:  He did not know that.

COSBY:  How much planning did it take to go to Iraq—from Ft. Lauderdale to Iraq, that‘s not an easy trip.

HASSAN:  Yes.  My planning could have been better.  It definitely could have been better, and I made a lot of bad decisions along the way, one of which was thinking of getting to Baghdad with a taxi from Kuwait City.  That was definitely a bad idea.  And if I had been able to get in through the Kuwaiti/Iraqi border when I arrived on Tuesday morning, I‘m almost sure I would have been killed.  So my timing was poor.

I did—it did take a lot.  I had to contact the Iraqi embassy to get my entry visa, to get my passport, but I‘m actually very surprised that I was able to get all of done and obtain all of those documents without any parental permission whatsoever.  That shocked me, actually.

COSBY:  Aren‘t you surprised?  You‘re just 16 years old and saying, I want to go to Iraq.  Nobody one said why?  Where are your parents?

HASSAN:  Nobody.

COSBY:  So everything just went through smoothly.

HASSAN:  Indeed.

COSBY:  Where did you get the money to fly all the way to Iraq?  You‘re 16 years old.

HASSAN:  The money was derived from investment money.  My parents—my—both of my parents gave me $5,000 after I had demonstrated my knowledge of the stock market with helping my mother make 25 percent in, like, two weeks from investment tips.  I read a lot of books in the last summer, probably, I think, four or five.  And I get “Investors‘ Business Daily,” great source of financial news, every single day, and I read that.  So the money was derived from my investment fund.

COSBY:  What did you pack for this trip?

HASSAN:  Not much.  In fact, I only took my backpack and a small suitcase.

COSBY:  And what‘d you put in those?

HASSAN:  Ordinary stuff, just as if you were going to, I don‘t know, Colorado or California for a one-week trip.  I took very little.

COSBY:  Were you concerned that word of your trip was going to leak out?  Did you tell your friends, Don‘t tell anybody?

HASSAN:  Yes, I was very concerned.  By that point, I had just—went through so much Video: Exclusive: American Teen Survives Alone in Iraq planning.  I had gone too far to stop then.  They, in fact, called me on my cell phone, saying, Farris, we‘re going to send the police to your house in order to stop from you going.  You cannot go to Iraq.  We‘re coming to your house right now.  So they were asking me for directions to my house, and I sort of misleaded them a bit.

But finally, they did arrive at my neighborhood, and just as I was in the taxi pulling out of my neighborhood, I saw my friends pulling into my neighborhood.  And we actually passed by each other.  And I was going to lower the window to tell them—I felt moved by this, and I was going to - I almost was about to stop right then and there, but something in me held me back.

COSBY:  So you actually drove right passed your friend, who was trying to stop you?

HASSAN:  Yes.

COSBY:  And you kept on going?

HASSAN:  They were able to reach me at the airport on the front desk phone, which I was very surprised by because I didn‘t tell them anything, any information.  So I could tell they really—they called all the airports, all the airlines and went through a lot in order to reach me.

COSBY:  And what did they say when they got you on the phone?

HASSAN:  Oh, it was very emotional.  She was crying.  And I told her that it‘s just something I have to do.  I just have to do this.  And I told her I would call my mother as soon as I arrived in the Middle East and tell her everything.

COSBY:  Briefly tell us the route you took from Miami airport to get to Baghdad.

HASSAN:  Well, I flew from Miami to Amsterdam, then to Kuwait City.  I took a taxi from Kuwait—from Kuwaiti City to the Iraqi border twice.  Both times, I was turned away.  After—from then on, I was stranded in Kuwait.  From there, I traveled to Beirut, Lebanon, and I spent 10 days there.

COSBY:  What was your parents‘ reaction when, all of a sudden, they got an e-mail how many days later?

HASSAN:  My mother told me that she just completely freaked out.

COSBY:  When did you send the e-mail?  And what did it say?

HASSAN:  When I was in the Kuwaiti airport, just before I left to go to the Iraqi border, I sent my mom an e-mail, telling her that I love her, not to worry about me, to trust my instincts, that I would be safe, and tell her that I planed on going to Baghdad.

COSBY:  Did you get a response back?

HASSAN:  Yes, I did, much later.  I believe it was the next day.

COSBY:  And what did the response say?

HASSAN:  She gave me contact numbers.  She told me not to go.  She told me she was worried about me.

COSBY:  How did you spend your Christmas Eve?

HASSAN:  Well, that was probably one of the highlights, the happiest times of my trip.  I went to three church services for Christmas Eve.  The first one was at an absolutely amazing Greek Orthodox church called St.  George‘s in downtown.  As I was exiting, I was greeted by probably about 50 Palestinians refugees living in Lebanon.  And they were all little kids with Santa hats, waving Palestinian and Lebanese flags.  There was teenagers there with bagpipes and drums.

I told them that I was an American here visiting Lebanon, and they all shook my hand and they invited me go with them to a cafe nearby.  And I was very surprised with the way they greeted me.

COSBY:  You actually met, you were telling me, with one of the leaders of Hezbollah.

HASSAN:  Yes.

COSBY:  How did that come about?

HASSAN:  Well, fortunately, my—the family with whom I was staying with was able to arrange several appointments with amazing figures in Lebanon—not amazing for a good reason, but just amazing to a 16-year-old that I‘d be able to get invited to meet.

COSBY:  Interesting figures?

HASSAN:  Interesting figures.  I interviewed the media relations officer for Hezbollah for two hours.  And I prepared probably about 20 questions for him.  I asked him everything, ranging from Iraq to America to Israel to in-depth Lebanese politics.

Video: Farris Hassan

COSBY:  Where did you meet this main figure with Hezbollah?

HASSAN:  Oh, I had to travel through alleyways, and I finally walked - this was in the southern Shi‘ite section of Beirut, the poorest section, so walking through alleyways, going up staircases, crooked staircases with bullet holes in the walls.  And there was no sign saying, This is the Hezbollah office, of course.

COSBY:  Were you worried about your safety?

HASSAN:  No.  I felt like I—no.

COSBY:  Why not?

HASSAN:  Well, with each group I immersed myself, I changed my persona.  When I was with the Christians, I told them that I was a Lebanese Christian, an American Christian with Lebanese parents.  And when I met with the Hezbollah leader, I gave him the impression that I wanted to paint Hezbollah in a good light when I returned to the United States.

COSBY:  Did he believe you?

HASSAN:  I think he did, up until we started talking about the—up until we started talking about Israel.

COSBY:  Then you leave Lebanon after these experiences and go back to Iraq.  How did you get back in, finally?

HASSAN:  I took a plane flight from Beirut to Baghdad.

COSBY:  Did you think your journey to Iraq would be dangerous?

HASSAN:  I was fully aware of all the dangers.

COSBY:  Did you know how bad?

HASSAN:  Yes, I did.  From the beginning.  In fact, when I was leaving to Kuwait, I told my friend, You know, I think there‘s probably a 50-50 chance that I‘ll come out of Iraq without any harm.  And I was fully aware of all the kidnappings that were going on, of all the bombings, of all the danger that was going on.

COSBY:  And you were willing to take that risk?  How does a guy, a 16-year-old from a private school in Florida, have the guts or the chutzpah to go over there?

HASSAN:  Well, I don‘t know about guts.  I‘ve always felt life is not worth living without taking great risks in order to achieve great things.  I‘ve always thought that we will all die some day, whether it‘s at 66 years old or at 16 years old, and that if I am to die, I‘d rather have it happen in trying to do something good, trying to help my fellow man.

COSBY:  Did you see bombings?  Did you hear bombings?

HASSAN:  I had counted 22 explosions.  After that, I stopped counting.

COSBY:  Why did you want to go Iraq?  Your parents are of Iraqi descent.

HASSAN:  That is not the reason.  My loyalties are to the United States and the United States only.  I am mind, body, heart and soul an American.  I have no loyalties to any other countries but the United States.  If the situation in Iraq was happening in any other country in this world, in Thailand or in Africa or in Israel, I would have traveled there.

COSBY:  What did you do when you got to Iraq?

HASSAN:  In Baghdad, I had a driver who was arranged for me by family connections take me to—I was hoping to go to the Sheraton Hotel Ishtar.  When I arrived there, however, I found it had—it was closed, to put it nicely.  And I found out a few weeks earlier, it was hit by suicide bomb—a few car bombs and that had put the hotel out of commission.  From there, I thought that the best place for me to stay was in a hotel that housed many Westerners and Americans and other journalists.  So I moved to the Palestine Hotel.

COSBY:  What did you see?  What did you experience when you were in Baghdad?  Did you see bombings?  Did you hear bombings?

HASSAN:  Yes.  On my first day, I counted 22 explosions.  After that, I stopped counting.  I‘m sure many of them—there was six vehicle bombs that day.  And there was, in fact, a gun fight.  It just felt like it was just a couple blocks away from the hotel.  I could hear the machine gun fire back and forth.

And that night, when I was—I spent Christmas night with the soldiers down at my hotel, guarding the hotel.  I heard a helicopter crash.  The whole ground shook and vibrated.  It was a big explosion.  That was probably about 11:30 at night.  And I later found out a couple—the next day that it was—two helicopters had collided, and one of them had crashed and two Marine had died.  And that really made the experience real to me.

COSBY:  You actually moved about the streets, even though you don‘t speak the language there in Iraq.  How did you do that?

HASSAN:  Well, I knew that as long as I didn‘t open my mouth, I would be fine because I look Iraqi and I can blend in with the crowd.  And I got some nice advice from an interpreter that I should pretend I‘m Kurdish, and that I speak a Turkish dialect of Arabic, so people wouldn‘t know I‘m American.

COSBY:  Where else did you roam in Baghdad?  Where else did you go?

HASSAN:  I left the hotel and walked for about 25 minutes.  I went to a restaurant and I went to just food shops.  I was looking around for some food.  After that, I realized that I couldn‘t survive out there for more than an hour outside of the hotel.  It was too dangerous.

COSBY:  Weren‘t you worried that they were going to discover you‘re an American and try to kill you, take you hostage?

HASSAN:  Yes, I was—I was—I was aware of the danger.  And I wouldn‘t say that I was scared.  I wasn‘t frightened.  I wasn‘t unnerved.  But especially when I was in the restaurant, trying to find a menu and asking the hostess for a menu, and I could tell they were all looking at me funny, and especially after I took out my “Arabic At a Glance” guidebook—once I knew they could tell I was American, I knew I was in a dangerous situation and I left.

COSBY:  You also reached out to some news organizations when you were there.  Why did do you that?

HASSAN:  Well, by my third day in Baghdad, I realized that I couldn‘t do any humanitarian work or research in the current—in my current situation because I could not leave the hotel.  And I had absolutely no connections in Baghdad and I was completely by myself.  So I approached the Associated Press, not to tell them my story.  I just asked them if I could tag along with their news crew when they went out to cover stories in Baghdad.

COSBY:  You told me before that you contacted another news organization.

HASSAN:  The first organization I contacted in the Palestine Hotel was Fox News.  And I told them I was a 16-year-old junior in Iraq for research, and I wanted—I was looking to do humanitarian work.  Told them I was completely by myself and I wanted to meet with the producers to see they could help me out in any way.

The first time, the person—the Arabic man who answered the phone told me that, oh, he‘d just give my message to the Fox News men.  I waited and that they‘d call me back if they were interested.  I spent the whole night that day in my hotel room awaiting the call, but I did not receive it.

The next day, I gave Fox News a call and I asked them, you know, What‘s going on?  I really am in a desperate situation.  I‘m sure that your producers would like to meet me.  And the man on the other end of the phone told me that he had given them my message and that if they were interested, they‘d give me a call.  And then he hung up on me.

COSBY:  So they never called you back?

HASSAN:  They never called me back.

COSBY:  They could have had this amazing story, but never called you.

HASSAN:  Yes.  Well, they could have helped me, but they never did.

COSBY:  You eventually did get through to the Associated Press, and they published your essays.  How did you feel about that?

HASSAN:  I was worried that the publicity I would get would somehow glorify what I did and encourage other people to do the same, to travel to Iraq by themselves surreptitiously and create a mess.

COSBY:  The Associated Press also called the U.S. embassy and said, We got to get this kid out of here.  Did you realize, at that point, that you needed to leave?

HASSAN:  I—the reason I  greed to go to the Green Zone is because I thought it was a safer place and I was told that the headquarters of the humanitarian organizations that were still left in Baghdad would be in the Green Zone.  So I would say the main reason why I went to the Green Zone was so I thought maybe I‘ll be able to get in touch with one of these humanitarian organizations and finally realize that goal.

COSBY:  You show up the Green Zone.  And then, at that point, U.S.  officials say, We got to get you out of here, right?

HASSAN:  Uh-huh.

COSBY:  How did you finally leave Iraq?

HASSAN:  Well, they told me that they could not force me to go and that it was my decision to leave Iraq.  I finally had to leave on Friday, after the news story broke and my parents were doing interviews and I was all over the TV and the newspapers, this 16-year-old American in Baghdad.  And I believe one of the news organizations released the information I was actually staying in al Rashid Hotel, and that frightened the military a lot that, you know—I‘m sure, at some point, Abu Musab Zarqawi checked his Jordanian hotstuff (ph) mail at Yahoo and saw the story.  He‘s probably the last person you want knowing who you are and where you are.  So at that point, for security reasons, I had to leave Baghdad.

COSBY:  And the 101st protected you, 101st Airborne?

HASSAN:  Yes, they did.

COSBY:  How many guys were protecting you?  And where did they take you?

HASSAN:  Actually, for—the Green Zone is a very safe place, so not I didn‘t have a very heavy escort.  I took a helicopter from Baghdad to the airport and stayed in the military base overnight.

COSBY:  And then where did you go?

HASSAN:  From there, I had a State Department escort me from Baghdad to Amsterdam.  They left me in Amsterdam.  And from Amsterdam, I went to Miami.

COSBY:  On your way back, you stopped at some of these cafeterias.  What did you see?

Andrew Dallos
Farris Hassan and Rita Cosby
HASSAN:  Well, in the military cafeterias, I saw Iraqi soldiers and American soldiers sitting down at the same table, eating dinner together and watching football and talking and laughing casually.  And I was amazed that—you know, I really believe the Iraqis are starting to—are understanding that we‘re here to help them and we‘re their friends.  And I could definitely see a bond and relationships being developed.

COSBY:  Was this about publicity?  Did you want all the attention, 15 minutes of fame?

HASSAN:  No.  I felt so guilty on when I was returning to the United States and I saw on the news two soldiers had been killed in Iraq, and they were sidelined.  And my story was in the headlines, in the center. 

I thought about the soldiers in Iraq, a soldier just watching what‘s going on, and he‘s thinking, you know, I‘m here, risking my life every day to help these Iraqis rebuild their lives, and my friend was just shot the other day, and this 16-year-old—this rich 16-year-old comes to Iraq, nothing happens to him, we go through a lot of trouble to get him back to the U.S., and he‘s getting all the press coverage, and no one‘s giving us attention.

COSBY:  And it turns out that Farris Hassan is very lucky.  Just this weekend, an American journalist was kidnapped.  Jill Carroll—she‘s a freelancer for “The Christian Science Monitor”—was kidnapped, her Iraqi translator killed.  Their car was ambushed in Baghdad.  And they were apparently trying to meet with a Sunni politician.  “The Christian Science Monitor” says that, so far, no one has claimed responsibility for her abduction.

And we‘re going to have much more of our exclusive interview with Farris Hassan Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.  Find out if he‘s getting punished by his school for skipping classes and going to Iraq, and what his parents had to say to him when he landed back in the U.S.  Plus, why is he worried that his story may inspire copycats?  Here‘s a preview of tomorrow‘s interview.

COSBY:  What would you say to another kid who says, Look, Farris went there.  He got all of this press attention. Why shouldn‘t I go?

HASSAN:  I want to tell them that I came this close on several occasions to being kidnapped and dying.

Watch 'Rita Cosby Live & Direct' each night at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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