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 WarzonePlayABC News
WATCH Then and Now: Life in Iraq

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.

Dan is now a changed young man. He now has a deep voice, double earrings and ripped jeans. On the outside, he looks like a thoroughly-Americanized kid, but inside he's totally confused, alone and cut off from his culture.

"It'd bad...I didn't want to leave this place but things didn't work out," he said. "I am sad because I love this place a lot... It's complicated. It's complicated."

This leaves with a responsibility I never expected or wanted. It falls to me to help Dan pick up the pieces.

My fear is that if Dan goes back to Baghdad -- where the insurgency is still in full swing – he'll be killed for being an American sympathizer -- and it would be partly my fault.

So, I bring Dan back down to New York City, where he crashes on my couch temporarily.

While trying to figure out his next move, Dan and I have a series of tough conversations. He toggles between blaming himself and blaming everyone else.

"I came here, 18 years old from Iraq, saw all the bad things in my life, all the horrible things actually, and you expect me to live here normally in the United States without problems, without anything?" he yelled at me. "Absolutely not. No Iraqi kid at my age, bring him here by himself, without a family, with all this freedom -- no hell of a chance."

As I deal with Dan's meltdown, I also consulted mental health professionals, who tell me that young refugees who come to America from warzones often act out in inappropriate ways. Dan, they say, is a classic case.

In fact, I eventually learn that some Iraqi refugees who come to the U.S. at the height of the insurgency ultimately return home in frustration.

"This is a message for all Iraqis -- don't come here. This is not the place for us," Dan tells me.

Notwithstanding his mixed feelings about America, Dan knows it would be extremely unsafe for both him and his family if he goes back.

So Dan and I go out to meet with local Arab and Muslim organizations to see if there was a way to keep Dan in the U.S.

After a series of meetings, however, we had no clear answers. At one point, Dan tears up as a charity worker tells him he might have to stay in a homeless shelter.

At this moment of extreme peril, Dan and I are both at a loss.

But then we catch a break. After dozens of pleading phone calls, I manage to convince some generous people I know in Maine to help Dan get into a group home there for troubled teens.

As we drive to the home, Dan tells me, "If I got kicked out of this one, that's it. My life is done for good."

As we move Dan in to his new home, it becomes clear that he will suddenly be subject to many more rules than he faced at Thomas College. He assures me he can handle it, and I tell him that I predict he'll make me proud.

Reports of Dan's Bad Behavior Continue to Pile Up

When I go back up to Maine to visit Dan a few months later, I see signs of progress. His teachers say they like him; he's got a volunteer job at the local Salvation Army that he seems to like.

But it's also clear that his disciplinary problems have not evaporated.

I sit it on a meeting with Dan and his support team. They demand that he take a drug test. He refuses, but ultimately relents. After assuring me that he hadn't smoked weed, the test results come back positive.

Weeks after that, I'm told that Dan had stolen several items from his job at the Salvation Army.

I call him to have it out. He defiantly denies it all.

"I'm always in my room, trying to avoid all this trouble, but trouble keeps following me," he told me when I confronted him about stealing. "Why? Because I'm Iraqi. I'm from a different country. I'm an international student, that's f---ing why."

Reports of Dan's bad behavior continue to pile up: disobeying rules, fighting, skipping class, disrespecting the staff and running away to his girlfriend's house. The final straw comes when school officials accuse him of selling pot to younger students. Dan denies it, but once again, he's kicked out.

He spends the next year living in an apartment outside of Boston. He's largely on his own, but manages to do surprisingly well for a while.

He studies for the GED and even toys with the idea of joining the US Army. But when he narrowly fails the GED and the Army thing falls through, he enters a deep funk.

When I come to visit him, he seems very depressed. His apartment is a mess, his skin is pale and he isn't eating well. He tells me he wants to go home to Iraq -- immediately.

"I made a mistake coming over here," he said. "I'm in my worst time ever in my life, I've never been like that in my life, like I never been so depressed and sad in my life like that, like I am right now."

I plead with him to hang in there, reminding him that if he makes it three more months, he'll have a green card and would be able to freely fly back and forth between the U.S. and Iraq.

He tells me he'll think about it.

The Final Decision: Dan Decides to Go Back to Iraq

Ultimately, the pull of home is too strong for Dan to resist.

Two years and four months after he came to America, I take him back to the airport.

En route, I ask him about that picture of New York City that he used to carry on his cell phone, and he tells me, "when you see reality, the whole thing changes. I didn't know it was going to be like this."

Standing at the gate, I feel conflicted. On one hand, I fear for his safety and I feel like I've failed him, but on the other hand, I also feel a twinge of relief that it's finally over.

He hugs me goodbye and heads to his gate.

Dan Back at Home

A little over a year after Dan left the U.S., I go back to Iraq to see him for the first time.

Initially, he seems dejected and remorseful about how he'd spent his time in America.

"Every day I think that the states and think about what I did at Thomas and I think, why the f--- did I miss up and it's my fault," he said. "There's a lot of people that deserve this chance better than I do."

After spending a few days with him, however, I start to see a different and more positive Dan. He had finished high school, moved back with his family and was making rap music with his friends.

He simply seems happier, and, as he reminds me, he still had his whole life ahead of him.

When I ask him again if he thought he would have been better off if he had never met me, he agrees at first.

"Sometimes I think to myself, if I never met Dan and I had stayed it would've been a lot better, and I didn't have to see or live the thing I did in the states," he said. "Sometimes, no, I feel like I'm glad I did and had this experience because it'll help me a lot in the future."

"Sometimes I do, but most of the time I'm glad, because I had to get over the lying...I had to find myself," he told me.

In my more optimistic moments, I like to think this whole ordeal was good for Dan.

After leaving Iraq, Dan sends me an email telling me he's enrolled in college, where he's studying to be a reporter.