Across Continents: A Stolen Laptop, An Ominous Email, And A Big Risk : NPR Ed From a traveler's worst nightmare — beaten and robbed in a foreign city — comes a surprising story of education and discovery.

Across Two Continents: Secrets Shared From A Stolen Laptop

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It's a traveler's nightmare - beaten and robbed on a dark street in a city far from home.

BEN ARMSTRONG: Dearest friends, I do not want to alarm you, but I was attacked yesterday night in Ethiopia. A few guys ran at me from behind, choked me until I fell unconscious on the dirt road and took everything I had.


His passport and wallet were stolen, his laptop, too. Once home, he bought a new computer and got a suspicious email. It said, I have your computer and all of your documents.

SIEGEL: What would you do? Hit delete? Call the police? Well, in this man's case neither of those things happened. Steve Drummond and Gabrielle Emanuel of the NPR Ed team have his story.

STEVE DRUMMOND, BYLINE: The man who got attacked is an American named Ben Armstrong.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: I've known Ben for years, and this all happened in 2013, in Addis Ababa. Ben was working for a tech startup.

ARMSTRONG: And a couple months after that, I get a note. All on the subject line, it reads...

FERNIS: (Reading) Hey, Benjamin, how are you doing? I'm the person who own your former MacBook Pro - long story. Anyways, I would like to return all your documents, if you don't mind.

DRUMMOND: Now Ben's back in the U.S. He's left his international job and he's returned to school at MIT.

ARMSTRONG: One of my mentors said, get away. Do not get near this. This is going to be a big problem.

EMANUEL: The emails kept coming in broken English from this guy with an interesting name - Fernis (ph).

ARMSTRONG: I thought he was a crook, probably. He wanted something. I didn't think it was charity.

DRUMMOND: When Ben does reply, it's just a line. Not interested. Then he gets a friend request.

ARMSTRONG: I log into Facebook and said, sure, I'll be your friend. You know, what's the harm in that? And then I see no picture. I see one friend - me - and some - like of a pop star. You know, it's bizarre. It feels like I'm getting conned.

DRUMMOND: So Ben shut it down. He stopped responding.

EMANUEL: But this Fernis guy didn't give up.

ARMSTRONG: Hey, Ben, what the hell happened? I thought we were friends.

EMANUEL: Fernis writes that he knows pretty much everything about Ben. He's been reading his documents and looking at the pictures.

DRUMMOND: It's creepy. And in an email, Ben lets him know.

ARMSTRONG: It feels violating to know that another person whom you don't know has access to all of your documents.

DRUMMOND: All this time, Ben's waiting for the ask. He knows it's coming. And Fernis does want something. It's not what Ben expected.

EMANUEL: Instead, he writes Ben a long personal letter. He admits he's been using a fake name. Here's what he wrote.

DRUMMOND: (Reading) I'm ashamed about our country, and I also feel guilty about owning the laptop. Forgive me for not telling the truth. I was just afraid.

EMANUEL: And then Ben reads the pitch.

ARMSTRONG: (Reading) You don't owe me anything, but it's been my dream to study abroad. Can you write me a letter of recommendation?

DRUMMOND: Ben's answer - nope. He replies, but it's the bare minimum.

ARMSTRONG: Here's a list of scholarships in technical fields for students in developing countries. And I sent him a link to a bunch of applications.

EMANUEL: Fernis writes back immediately.

ARMSTRONG: (Reading) OK, Ben, I do understand your suspicion. But could you apply for me if you did know me? Actually, it's a big deal - favor - to ask this, but what can I say? I'm desperate for studying abroad, and I'm passionate and enthusiastic.

And this is when I think the conversation gets - it gets to the core of what we're trying to figure out, which is what is our obligation to one another, having come into contact in such a bizarre way?

DRUMMOND: Ben's suspicious, but he leaves a window open just a crack. He sends Fernis a note - can you write a page and tell me why you'd like to study abroad?

ARMSTRONG: This was a test. This was definitely a test.

DRUMMOND: Two days later, Ben gets an answer. It starts with Fernis' childhood dream.

EMANUEL: He grew up in a small town in eastern Ethiopia. Fernis is his nickname. It means joyous.

FERNIS: Yeah, my official, real name - it's called Haileyesus. Can you pronounce it, Haileyesus? Haileyesus.

EMANUEL: Can you spell it for me?

FERNIS: Yeah. H-A-I-L-E-Y-E-S-U-S. Haileyesus.

EMANUEL: Growing up, his favorite thing was staring at the night sky. But studying astronomy in Ethiopia was nearly impossible. So five years ago, he enrolled at Addis Ababa University, studying architecture.

DRUMMOND: That's what he wrote to Ben in the test, but here's what he didn't say.

EMANUEL: One day in his second year of college, Fernis got a text. His locker had been broken into and his computer stolen. Fernis raced across campus. His friends were there. They looked like they were at a funeral.

FERNIS: My friends were gathered. They have sad face on their faces.

EMANUEL: Sad faces because Fernis had lost his most important possession. He says you can't call yourself a student if you don't have a computer.

FERNIS: Without computer, you are nothing in that campus.

EMANUEL: Fernis was miserable. For months, he and his family saved up to buy him a new computer. Then he went to the black market.

FERNIS: So I met this guy. He also gets the computers from the robbers directly.

DRUMMOND: Right from the robbers directly. And one of those computers was Ben's computer, a MacBook Pro.

EMANUEL: Fernis took it back to school, and he says he felt like a big man on campus. And went right to his dorm room, bottom bunk, and opened up the computer. First thing he saw? A picture of Ben.

FERNIS: The first time I see him, he just looked like Matt Damon, so...

EMANUEL: ...Matt Damon?

FERNIS: Yeah. So I showed the picture for my families. They're already - oh, is that Matt Damon? They were, like - so I was just having fun.

EMANUEL: So - wait, you didn't feel, like, a little bit weird looking at his pictures or reading his documents?

FERNIS: Yeah, not exactly. I was fascinated.

EMANUEL: Fernis was fascinated. He'd never met an American before, and he says he couldn't stop thinking, maybe this guy could help me. Yet everyone was telling Fernis, leave Matt Damon alone. He could get in trouble for having stolen property. But Fernis says he felt a moral obligation to return the documents.

FERNIS: It's not moral just to delete some people's life work.

EMANUEL: So he takes precautions - a fake name and a new email address - and he reads everything on the computer.

DRUMMOND: But he doesn't tell anyone what he's up to.

EMANUEL: Oh, so you kept it a secret?

FERNIS: Yeah, for a long time.

EMANUEL: There's this dance going on. Both sides are moving slowly, wondering if they can trust one another.

ARMSTRONG: What do I do (laughter) here? What's the right response?

DRUMMOND: Because in all this time...

ARMSTRONG: ...He's never asked for money once. He asked for something, but it was the best possible thing he could've asked for, to me. He wanted an education. That's what he asked for.

EMANUEL: Should we give him a call?

ARMSTRONG: (Laughter) Let's give him a call.


ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I can hear it.


FERNIS: Hello, Gabrielle?

EMANUEL: Hi, how are you?

FERNIS: I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm not watching you right now.

EMANUEL: You can't see me, but I have Ben here with me.

ARMSTRONG: Hey, Fernis, how's it going?

FERNIS: It's good, Ben. How are you doing?

ARMSTRONG: I'm doing well. How's...

EMANUEL: On Skype, we talked about that test - write a page about yourself. And Fernis did a pretty good job. His answer was thorough and complex. But his English needed work.

DRUMMOND: So Ben gets an idea. He gives Fernis another assignment. This time, write an essay.

ARMSTRONG: Show your perspective on the question, how does new technology influence inequality in your community and across the world?

DRUMMOND: It sounds nerdy, but that's a class Ben was teaching at MIT. He starts sending Fernis his lecture notes and the assigned reading.

ARMSTRONG: And by the way, Fernis, you wrote an essay for every session, and no other student did that. The most that another student would write is one essay.

FERNIS: Oh, really?


DRUMMOND: Ben realized Fernis was his top student. His essays were clearer...

ARMSTRONG: ...And more thoughtful than my American students'.

EMANUEL: And it wasn't just that. Their notes back and forth revealed a lot in common.

ARMSTRONG: His view of the world is strikingly similar to my own. And it's this question about all right, yeah, how different are we really?

DRUMMOND: When the class ended they kept going, writing personal essays and sometimes talking online. Fernis uses that MacBook all the time.

FERNIS: She's like my girlfriend.


EMANUEL: The computer's like your girlfriend?

FERNIS: Yeah, yeah.

EMANUEL: You spend a lot of time with it?

FERNIS: Almost all day.

ARMSTRONG: (Laughter).


DRUMMOND: It's been over two years since Fernis wrote that first email.

FERNIS: My English is changed tremendously.

ARMSTRONG: And it ended up turning into something far more than I ever could've imagined.

EMANUEL: Now Fernis is looking at schools in the U.S. He's hoping to pick up astronomy again.

DRUMMOND: And Ben? He's promised to write that letter of recommendation. Steve Drummond.

EMANUEL: Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.

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