Reporter's Notebook: When Dan Met Dan

Photo: Reporters Notebook: When Dan Met Dan: When Dan Harris Helped Bring an Iraqi Teen Who Shared His Name to the U.S., Both Faced a Different Kind of Warzone

It all started with a chance meeting at a schoolyard in Baghdad in the middle of a gunfight in 2006.

"Shots, a lot of shots," says a student near me, as everyone scurries for cover. "We are used to it. What can we do?"

He tells me he's 18 years old and that his name is Dan -- just like mine.

It's in this moment that I decide to do a story about this teenager who was growing up in the middle of a warzone and who shared my name.

It's too dangerous for me to go to the apartment where Dan lives with his family; he lives in a rabidly anti-American neighborhood. However, we give him a camera and he shoots pictures of his home -- where he has learned English from watching American movies and listening to hip-hop.

He shows me his treasured cell phone, where he kept pictures of New York City, and he shares an agonizing story about having seen his best friend Mohammed shot and killed by a sniper.

"I just hear gunshots, so I get down, scared any bullets going to come for me," he says. "I saw my friend is on the ground. I tell him to stand up so he didn't answer so just real scared. I see blood on the ground and I was crying and that's what happened. He's dead."

Our story on Dan airs on ABC News in 2007. After the broadcast, we get hundreds of emails from viewers, including one from the small liberal arts school in Maine, Thomas College, which offers Dan a scholarship and a chance to come to the United States. It sounds like a great idea to me.

I asked my bosses for permission to do something unusual, to step into the story and actively help get this kid to America.

It takes two months and a White House intervention to get him a visa, but in March 2007, Dan is finally cleared to leave Iraq and come to the U.S. He kisses his enthusiastic but sad mother goodbye, leaves behind everything he's ever known and arrives at New York's JFK airport.

As he comes through customs, he gives me a big hug. "I feel happy -- at the same time, very scared," he tells me as we walked through the terminal.

That night, we fly to Maine -- and the next morning, we drive up to Thomas College in the town of Waterville.

It feels surreal -- and also makes me a little giddy -- to watch this kid, fresh out of Baghdad, now touring the safe, sterile halls of an American college.

"This is gonna be my home," he announced, after being shown to his dorm room.

He's overwhelmed by the abundance: the vending machines stocked with sodas; the fitness center filled with state-of-the-art equipment. He's also taken by the novelty of his first snowball fight.

"We made it," he tells me.

Looking back on all of this now, my unbounded optimism seems ragingly naïve. What sounded like the quintessential happy Hollywood ending turns into something infinitely more complex.

The Teenager Struggles to Adjust to His New Freedom

Dan's time at Thomas is a disaster.

Part of the problem is that school officials say they had overestimated his English skills and put him in classes he couldn't handle.

But the real issue is that Dan greets every attempt to help him with an almost compulsive habit of dishonesty. He lies to me and school officials about skipping class, drinking and using drugs and illegally driving a friend's car.

After two tumultuous semesters, Dan is kicked out of Thomas College.

I return to campus to help him move out.

"I couldn't make it," he told me, as he carried his belongings out of his dorm room.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...