Five-year-old Maya Hughes was nearly inconsolable. Her mother, Zainab Sesay, had placed her in the care of a total stranger, who was then tasked with taking the young girl on an international flight. And 15 years after the unknown man escorted her daughter from Africa to the United States, Sesay managed to find him once again.
Zainab Sesay had grown up in Sierra Leone, but she had gone on to live in the United States. In 2003, nonetheless, she decided to travel overseas for a six-month stay in her home country, this time with her daughter in tow. At that point, moreover, Sesay hadn’t been home for over ten years.
But the mother-daughter trip wouldn’t go quite to plan. Sometime in the fourth month of their half-year stay, you see, Hughes suffered a medical emergency. And the young girl had to return to the United States immediately in order to get the care that she needed. Indeed, as Hughes tweeted 15 years later, “It was a life-and-death-type situation.”
And what’s more, Sesay had a problem of her own. She actually had to deal with family matters still lingering in Sierra Leone, so she couldn’t therefore take her daughter back to the United States herself. Instead, she had to make the presumably scary choice to buy her five-year-old daughter a one-way ticket.
Of course, it wasn’t simple to send a five-year-old child onto an aeroplane by herself; in fact, it was impossible to do so. Although children Hughes’ age can fly solo, they cannot do so on a trip with connections. And the daughter’s flight home would have multiple layovers, so she therefore needed a chaperone.
So, Sesay headed to the airport and began asking strangers if they would serve as Hughes’ escort overseas. “Of course, everybody had an excuse,” Hughes reported on Twitter, potentially recalling the moment herself. Sesay nevertheless approached a gate agent and asked her to point out who in the waiting area was also going back to the United States.
Thus the female gate agent directed Sesay’s attention to a male standing in the corner. Sesay told the Huffington Post in 2018 that the woman spoke in Krio, a language also known as Sierra Leonean Creole. The agent reportedly stated, “Well, you know, that white guy over there is traveling.” So Sesay walked over to the individual, ready to pose him “the most insane question anyone could possibly ask.”
At first, however, this man had a reason as to why he couldn’t be charged with Hughes’ care. “He told my mom he was in no mental state to travel with a minor because he had just lost his grandmother,” Hughes posted on Twitter. In fact, the man had come to the airport so he could fly back to the United States to attend her funeral.
But fortunately, this man eventually realized how dire Sesay’s situation really was and thusly agreed to be Hughes’ guardian on her international flights. That’s right: the five-year-old’s mom said goodbye and stuck around at the airport to watch the plane take off. A wave of emotion likely hit the forlorn parent as soon as she saw the vessel fly away.
“All of a sudden, the adrenaline kind of went away, and I realized, ‘Oh, my God, I just handed my only child at the time to a complete stranger,’” Sesay told the Huffington Post. Had Hughes’ mother chosen a suitable candidate to care for her daughter on the lengthy overseas journey?
With that, Hughes and the man journeyed from Africa back to the United States, making their way through multiple layovers together. And the flight attendants on board their flights stepped in to help the kind stranger with his babysitting duties. Yes, they even gave him and the young girl first class meals on their flights.
Although Hughes was a mere five years old at the time, she remembered experiencing “a lot of chaos that day.” And the stranger’s kindness stayed with her, too. “I just remember crying a lot on the plane,” she told the Huffington Post. “I remember him trying to calm me down. That’s all I remember, really, just him trying to calm me down on the plane.”
Another snippet seared into Hughes’ mind was how the man attempted to soothe her just after their meeting. He tried singing songs in Krio to a “screaming, crying five-year-old,” as she described herself on Twitter. She reiterated to the Huffington Post, “He was really nice.”
Hughes and her adult helper eventually landed at Dulles International Airport, just outside of Washington, D.C. During their trek, Sesay’s mother, who lived nearby, had gotten word that her granddaughter was coming home. She drove to the airport and picked up the five-year-old, who ran into her arms at the end of a long journey.
The next month, Sesay made her own journey from Sierra Leone back to the United States. And from that point on, she and her daughter only continued to talk about the man who brought Hughes home. “I always gave my mom a hard time because he was a complete stranger, and it was risky,” Hughes told BuzzFeed News.
Both Hughes and Sesay always wondered about the identity of the man who had stepped up to help them. Over the years, they also told the story of their international ordeal with various family members. And sharing the story with a cousin led to a break in the case about a decade after it all happened.
It turned out that Sesay’s cousin recalled hearing a similar story from one of her former colleagues. That was all her cousin said at the time, though; she provided no further information as to who the man was. And then, Sesay and her cousin fell out of touch, as the latter did not live in the United States.
Some six years later, the cousin visited the States and brought up the story again – but this time, with an additional detail she hadn’t shared before. Sesay told the Huffington Post, “[My cousin] said, ‘Hey, Zainab, did you ever track Tom Perriello down?’ And I said, ‘Who’s that?’”
The cousin then revealed that Tom Perriello was “the guy who you said brought Maya back. Remember? I told you he’s a colleague of a colleague.” Sesay hadn’t heard his name before, but she got to work trying to find him once she had it. She eventually uncovered his email address and sent him a message.
Sesay’s sprawling email covered the entire story of her daughter’s transatlantic journey. Her note included an apology, as it might well have seemed to come out of nowhere – especially if the recipient wasn’t the right person. But she pressed send anyway and awaited a response.
Fortunately, Sesay finally received a reply a few days later. And in it, Perriello confirmed that he had, indeed, been the one who’d accompanied Hughes overseas on that day in 2003. Understandably, the Sierra Leonean was shocked to hear the news. “I jumped out of my seat,” she said.
By the time Sesay reconnected with Perriello, he had followed a successful career in both politics and public service. He’d in fact spearheaded the advocacy efforts of the Center for American Progress, served as a Congressman for the state of Virginia and worked under the Obama Administration as a special envoy in the State Department. He’d even run for the Virginia governorship in 2017.
Back in 2003, though, Perriello was working for the United Nations as a spokesperson and adviser. He had actually landed in Sierra Leone to take part in a U.N. war crimes tribunal. This panel had been created in order to prosecute those who had committed human rights abuses in the midst of the country’s civil war.
So, when Sesay approached Perriello in the airport, he had not only just lost his grandmother, but he had also learned that the tribunal would indict Liberia’s dictator Charles Taylor for his crimes. Perriello told the Huffington Post, “It was in some ways the worst possible emotional space to be in.”
Perriello told BuzzFeed News, “It’s an incredibly vivid memory that seems like something out of a movie. It just wasn’t clear if it was a happy or a sad movie.” Mind you, he could recall that he “was literally working multiple phones” to figure out his own travel plans when Sesay approached him.
Perriello, of course, said no to Sesay’s initial request to take her daughter home; he had plenty on his own plate to deal with. But he eventually relented because he could sense “her urgency and desperation,” he told the Huffington Post. Plus, he had a keen insight into Sierra Leone’s “precarious humanitarian situation,” which further inspired him to step up.
Just as Hughes had remembered, Perriello confirmed that he did sing her a song in Krio. He only knew one verse, though, so he repeated it over and over for an hour to help her calm down. Indeed, the rest of their journey was just as tumultuous, he said. As the unrelated pair crossed international borders, in fact, they had to answer a barrage of questions.
“There was some serious drama on each leg of the trip, as there should have been under the circumstances, but we worked with officials and some angels at the airlines to make sure Maya got home safely to her grandmother’s care,” Perriello told BuzzFeed News. And it would be the young girl’s reunion with her grandmother that made the whole journey worthwhile, he said.
“One of the happier moments in my life was seeing Maya run into her grandmother’s arms,” Perriello said. But there was something that Sesay and Hughes didn’t know about until they reconnected with Perriello. His decision to chaperone the child at that particular time had come with a huge personal consequence.
Perriello revealed that he had to leave the airport’s arrivals area so that he could bring Hughes to meet her grandmother. Exiting this area meant that he had to go back through security checks – and the delay ultimately led him to miss his flight connection. He didn’t make it to his grandmother’s funeral.
Sesay found that revelation difficult to digest. “That really dampened my heart. It was horrible – I didn’t realize,” she told the Huffington Post. Details such as this one continued to fall into place as she and Perriello exchanged more and more emails. Of course, Hughes heard the story too and decided to share the tale with her Twitter followers.
“My mom has been trying to find this man for 15 years – we never got his name or anything,” Hughes tweeted. “My mom emailed him, and this man remembered everything. He said he never forgot about me or the songs he was [trying] to sing in Krio… He had told his family about it and everything.”
“There’s a HUGE possibility I wouldn’t be here today if this man didn’t bring me back over here. Finding him after 15 years is really [crazy] because I thought about it a lot. He didn’t have to help me. He didn’t owe me anything. I’m so, so grateful!” Hughes concluded.
Hughes’ unbelievable story went viral via Twitter, garnering thousands of likes, re-tweets and comments. One such comment came from Perriello himself, who responded, “One of the craziest experiences of my entire life is now a Twitter thread, and I could not be happier to know you are shining bright, Maya!”
After their initial connection – and viral Twitter thread – Perriello, Hughes and Sesay planned to speak to one another in greater detail, perhaps even in person. After all, for Perriello, even the initial conversations had proven cathartic. He told the Huffington Post, “It’s been an emotional week, and I think I didn’t realize how much closure I needed on the experience.”
As for Sesay and Hughes, they hoped that by publicizing their story, they would share with the world what a great human that Perriello was and is. Hughes told BuzzFeed News, “He’s genuinely a good person, which is something we don’t have a lot of anymore.” And for that, all she wanted to do was express her gratitude.
“If it wasn’t for him I don’t know how I would’ve made it back. We’ve been trying to find him because we never really got to say thank you,” Hughes concluded. And her mother agreed, adding that she could finally put a name to a face that had lingered in her mind for nearly two decades.
“For 15 years I was looking for this ghost,” Sesay said. “I hope to meet with him to get the opportunity to shake his hand, hug him and thank him for having done that.” And many other people who read the story of their transatlantic journey certainly agreed: Perriello deserved praise for his good deed.
One Twitter user lauded all the parties involved and wrote, “This story has all the feels. It’s terrifying for you and your mom and scary but brave for you… Brave of the stranger, too, to take this child to safety. The relief when you make it. Discovery when you find him again… AMAZING!”
But perhaps another Twitter user summed it up best when they said the narrative was just what readers needed in the midst of a crueler news cycle. They wrote, “Standing in a bar with tears in my eyes. What a great story, thank you so much for sharing. We need reminders that humanity is alive.”