It’s a miracle! Our stolen pictures have been returned to us!

If you followed our travels much, you probably know that ten days before the end of our year-long trip, on June 21, someone broke into our rented house and stole all of our computers and hard drives containing a year’s worth of pictures and all back-ups. We had been careful along the way to have three complete sets of all pictures – two sets on two different computers and one set on an external hard drive. The robbers took all of that plus another computer, binoculars, two GoPro cameras and other things. The only pictures we had remaining to us were those that we had uploaded to our website. Those represented a pretty small percentage of all pictures taken. That evening after recovering from the shock, we went onto the “find my iPhone” site and put a lock on each of the computers and on Valerie’s iPhone. The lock would be applied as soon as each device accessed the Internet and a message would be displayed on the screen. The message we put on (in Italian) said that we would gladly give the person the code to unlock the computers if we could just get our pictures back.

About a week later, we received notice from the “find my Iphone” app that Valerie’s stolen iPhone had accessed the Internet in Casablanca, Morocco. We made no effort to find the iPhone, because it did not contain our pictures. After that, we received no news about the location of the three computers until more than two months later on August 29, when one of the stolen computers logged into the Internet for the first time and the lock was applied from a town called Fnideq in northern Morocco. The “find my iPhone” app showed us approximately where the access point was and using Google Maps, we were able to see what looked like an eight-story apartment building at the site of the access. It was tormenting for us to look at that building on the map and think that someone there had our pictures, which meant nothing to him but were priceless to us.

A company called Rough Tours had guided us through Morocco while we were there on our travels. I had spoken to the owner, Youssef, back then but we had never met him – one of his employees, Said, had guided us around Morocco. They were the only people we knew in Morocco. I called Youssef and explained the situation to him. Although it had been about 12 months since we were in Morocco and we had never met him personally, he remembered our family very well and said he wanted to do anything he could to help us. For the next two weeks or so, he did everything he could to help us with no thought of personal reward. I had searched for any western businesses in Fnideq where someone might speak English and found one Ibis hotel down the street from the apartment building. I called and spoke to the first person that answered the phone. I explained the situation, asked the person if he would be willing to go to that apartment building and try to find the computer and buy it back. I offered to pay him well for his efforts. Youssef also called this individual a few times and spoke to him in Arabic and told him what to say to the people he would meet at the apartment building so they would not be afraid to cooperate with us. After about a week of sending e-mails and calling him back only to hear that he had not done anything, it became apparent that he wasn’t going to help out. We can’t really blame him – we were asking him to do something that could prove to be dangerous – recover stolen goods – and we weren’t really sure that the map location was really that accurate. Both Youssef and I also independently called a café in the corner of the apartment building. I couldn’t find anyone to speak English and the owners hung up twice on Youssef when he explained that we were trying to recover stolen property.

The areas in which Youssef conducts tours are a long way from Fnideq and Youssef couldn’t go there or send someone.  He tried to get in contact with an acquaintance in Tangier, about two hours from Fnideq, but never heard back from him. Youssef had told us that Fnideq is a common place for stolen goods. We thought that maybe our other computers, including the other computer with the pictures, and the hard drive might be for sale somewhere in the market of Fnideq.

About this time, a work project arose that would require me to be in Barcelona for business. I had made preliminary arrangements to fly to Tangier after my visit to Barcelona. I made contact with several tour guides in Tangier and some were available during those days. However, when I explained that I didn’t want a tour, but wanted someone to go with me to shop for our stolen goods, they all refused saying that they only provided tourist services. We knew all along that all of these ideas (finding the computer in the apartment building or finding the other computer with the pictures or the hard drive in the market) were very long shots, but we felt like we had to do anything possible, no matter how low the chances of success because of how much these pictures meant to us. We had called the American embassy in Morocco (a long distance from Fnideq) to see if they could help, but we were shut down pretty quickly. I had even sent unsolicited messages to several people in Tangier through an expat website and an e-mail to the chairperson for the American Chamber of Commerce in Tangier requesting some help. Nobody responded to those e-mails. When I couldn’t get anyone to accompany me from Tangier to Fnideq, we officially gave up all hope of finding this computer. My trip to Barcelona was eventually cancelled.

Then, on the morning of October 12 (six weeks from the time we first received notice that one of our computers had accessed the Internet from Fnideq), I received an e-mail in Spanish saying essentially that one of our computers had come into the hands of this person. He had removed the block and saw the message about us wanting our photos. He said he was willing to get our photos to us, but they occupied 150GB of data and he wasn’t sure how to get them to us. Wow! I was so excited, but also cautious. This person assured me that he did not want any money for this, but he also didn’t want to get into trouble since he knew he was dealing with stolen property. I didn’t know if he had the same computer from six weeks earlier or one of the others. I asked to see a few photos to make sure it was one of the computers with the pictures. He e-mailed me some random photos and I knew that he had a computer that had all of our pictures. He later confirmed the serial number and then I knew it was the same computer from six weeks earlier.

All of our correspondence throughout this process was in Spanish – I can read Spanish reasonably well, but I had to use Google Translate to write back what I wanted to say. I wondered why the person with the computer was speaking Spanish since the computer had been in Morocco six weeks earlier. Fnideq is about an hour South of Ceuta, which is a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast. I wondered if a native Spanish speaker had purchased the locked computer from someone in Fnideq.

At that point, he started to upload photos from our trip to a folder on Dropbox that we could both access. I had asked him to upload photos from the 2013 and 2014 folders, but when they started to upload, they were mostly photos from before our travels that we already had stored elsewhere. At the beginning, I was careful not to ask him to do too many things for fear that he would tire of it all and lose interest. The uploading continued to run all day and night, but most of the photos were photos we already had. I asked him to stop the uploading of all folders at once and just put one month of pictures in the shared folder at a time to upload. I asked him to start from June 2014 (the end of our trip) and then go to May after June was finished and so forth. He had told me how much data was in the folders of August 2013 to June 2014 (the pictures we needed) and at the pace it was going, I calculated that it would take about 90 days to upload all the photos. I felt like we were so close to getting our photos, but that too many things could happen to disrupt it in the course of 90 days.

I asked my contact if he would be willing to buy an external hard drive, copy all the data over and FedEx it to me. I would pay all the costs. He agreed that was a good idea and he went out and bought a hard drive big enough to hold them all. I was really impressed at how responsive he had been and at his willingness to spend his own money for the hard drive with no assurance of getting paid back. In response to my question about how I could pay him, he said he didn’t enjoy talking about money, but said I could send him $300 through Western Union. At that point, alarm bells went off. Western Union is the source of so many scams and $300 was more than it would cost him for a hard drive. I had given him my FedEx account so that would not cost him anything.   I wanted to trust this person because he had already done so much to help and he had assured me more than once that he did not want money from me. Nevertheless, I started to worry that maybe he had brought me to this point and had whetted my appetite, but would continue to ask for another installment of Western Union money before he could send the hard drive. I hated having these doubts because I had wanted to take him at his word throughout and he had seemed honest and genuine.  I told him that because I was really busy with my family and work, I would not be able to go to Western Union to send him the money until after the hard disk arrived. I worried that my response would bring everything to a halt. My delay in sending the money didn’t seem to matter to him and he continued to move forward.

He next told me that the closest FedEx location was more than two hours away in Tangier and he wouldn’t be able to get there. He kept uploading folders while I thought about what to do next. At this point, I reached back out to Youssef and told him the good news. I asked him if he could get someone to drive to Fnideq, get the hard drive and send it to me via FedEx and I would pay all costs. As always in the past, he responded immediately. His brother would be finishing up a tour two days from then and he would send him on an eight-hour drive to Fnideq. He would drive half-way after finishing his tour, stay in a hotel and then drive the rest of the way the next day and meet this person. My contact was willing to meet up with Youssef’s brother, but did not want to give his name or any other information – he was still a little worried about getting into trouble. He asked that we pay him $50 for the cost of the hard drive. Amazing. On the day of the arranged pick-up, I waited anxiously to hear that the hard drive was in the hands of Youssef’s brother. Youssef had instructed his brother to give my contact $100 or so for his efforts. Youssef forgot about the time difference and I received a call on my mobile phone at 2:30 a.m. I awoke and muted the call because through this entire process, I had not said anything to Valerie because I didn’t want her to get her hopes up until I was sure this was going to work. I got up, went downstairs and tried to call him back, but he did not answer. A little later, I received an e-mail from Youssef saying everything had gone as planned and that his brother was on an eight hour drive back to Marrakech where the hard drive would be taken to FedEx in about one week’s time when Youssef was back in Marrakech. While those next days passed, the uploading continued in case the hard drive was damaged in transit and my contact agreed not to delete any of the data until the hard drive had arrived undamaged.

On November 4, I saw via FedEx tracking that the package would be ready for pick-up at our local FedEx office in Orem. I took my computer to the FedEx office that night, picked up the package and confirmed right there in their office that the hard drive was intact and all of our photos were there! I also forced the poor young man there to hear the whole story. I was so excited to tell someone of this miraculous event.

I waited until today, November 27 (Thanksgiving) to tell Valerie about any of this. I wrapped the plastic container that the hard disk had come in and the FedEx envelope in a box and presented it to her, along with some hard-copy pictures of our day in Rome that had never made it onto our website before the computers were stolen. It was an appropriate gift to receive on Thanksgiving, because we are so grateful for this miraculous blessing!

Through the course of three weeks of correspondence with my contact in Morocco and as our mutual trust increased, I gradually learned more about him and he about me. I learned that his name was not the Spanish name he used in his e-mail, but that he was a Moroccan that lived and worked in Fnideq. He is 39 and married, without children. His job is as a pharmacist, but everyone in town knows of his expertise with computers and they often come to him for help. He said that our items had been stolen by an Italian who then sold the computer to a Morrocan. This Morrocan had passed through Fnideq and sold the computer to a friend of my contact and his friend had brought it to him to have it unblocked. In his own words, he told me that many, many computers have passed through his hands to be unblocked and this was the first time he had reached out to the owners to restore their data. He said our willingness to give the unlock code to someone in exchange for the photos was what motivated him to help us – he sensed just how important these things were to our family.

At one point, I told my contact of our plan to go to a specific apartment building in Fnideq to try to find the computer. I sent him the map of the location that we had sent to the man at the Ibis hotel. My contact confirmed that the location of his home and pharmacy where the computer had first accessed the Internet were about 600 meters away from the building I had identified. It would have been useless to go to this apartment building to search for our computer. Because of the proximity of his business to the Spanish settlement in Ceuta, he has many Spanish-speaking customers who come to his pharmacy and he communicated to me in Spanish because he knows that the majority of people in the U.S. speak Spanish :-). He expressed great satisfaction that the hard drive arrived undamaged and told me that he would like to keep the nature pictures because he enjoys them very much and it made him happy that we had made this great journey together as a family. He would delete all the other pictures.

As I said in what I thought would be my final post on our website, during our travels we have met many good people and some bad people. At the top of my list of good people right now are two people in Morocco – my contact and Youssef, the owner of Rough Tours.

My contact gained nothing from the weeks of our correspondence and from occupying his Internet connection night and day uploading my photos. He knew before he even contacted me that he held something that was worth a lot to me and he could have demanded a heavy price for his help. Instead, he insisted throughout that he was not doing this for money and he even spent his own money to buy a hard drive for our photos without knowing for sure if he would get paid back.

Youssef remained super-responsive throughout this entire ordeal. He called people on my behalf to try and convince them to help even when he sensed that the chances of finding the computer were very remote. He strategized with me and gave me ideas as to how to deal with the situation in Morocco. He tried to contact an acquaintance in Tangier to drive to Fnideq. In the end, he sent his brother on a 16-hour round-trip, overnight drive to pick-up the hard drive, pay my contact for it and send it via FedEx at his own cost. For the first time, he has become unresponsive – to both of my requests as to how I can pay him back. If you ever plan a trip to Morocco, please contact Youssef from Rough Tours. We had a great experience with his company while traveling through Morocco and his honesty and dependability cannot be doubted.

We prayed many times for the return of our photos and at the same time, we did everything we could think of to get them back. We know that many of our friends also prayed for the return of our pictures. I am still in unbelief some times that the photographic record of this incredible year has been returned to us. God truly does reward our faith and our efforts and answers our prayers!

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Chris Ellis November 30, 2014, 1:02 pm

    What a great story of faith demonstrated through works. We as a family read it round the dinner table. You made my wife cry. We are all grateful that you took the time to share it with the world.

    Your friends,
    Chris and Vivian Ellis

    Reply
  • Ann Doherty December 3, 2014, 1:38 pm

    That’s an amazing story! I am not at all surprised having spent a week under Youssef and Rough Guide’s excellent care a couple of months ago when visiting Morocco with friends. I imagine a donation to Friends of Nomads/
    Ramlia Children’s Literacy Fund (a school set up by Youssef in his hometown) would be a great way to thank him for his heroic efforts: http://www.friendsofnomads.com :)
    Enjoy your rediscovered photos!

    Reply
  • Susan December 4, 2014, 1:51 am

    I agree with Ann’s comments. I spent 15 days being guided around Morocco by Rough Tours and can vouch that this is a company of great integrity. Can’t give any higher praise, such safe hands.

    Reply
  • Cintia Kava December 4, 2014, 3:49 am

    Youssef, very good and professional man, best guide ever!!!

    Reply

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