Fifteen years ago, Zainab Sesay placed the fate of her five-year-old daughter Maya in the hands of an unknown American, whom she met for the first time at the Lungi airport in Sierra Leone. Now, fifteen years later, Maya is now twenty, mother and daughter have been able to track down their ‘savior’. “I realize that maybe I would not be there if he had not taken me away.”
The little Maya had to leave Sierra Leone fifteen years ago, back to the US, where her grandmother would be waiting for her. Mama Zainab could not travel at that moment. She was forced to give her daughter to a stranger to save her.
Zainab Sesay left the Sierra Leone torn by a civil war at the age of eleven. She grew up in Maryland, where she later worked and married. When her US-born daughter Maya Hughes was five, the woman decided that it would be a good idea to immerse herself in the culture of her motherland, Sierra Leone.
To realize that plan, she booked two tickets for half a year to the West African country. Maya remembers the trip vaguely: the many family members, the washing of the clothes outside, the generators for the lights, a bag filled with sand that she used as football with her nephews and nieces. The girl had the time of her life.
But in the meantime, things did not go well with the family, which, like the country, was in crisis. Zainab and Maya do not want to say much about it, but it is clear that after a stay of four months the life of Maya was in danger: according to her mother the child had to leave the country unnoticed as soon as possible.
Hello Kitty bag
At an unguarded moment Zainab took the Hello Kitty bag from her daughter and took her to the airport, where she took off all the ticket desks to find someone who would fly to the US. But the travel agents did not want to provide that information “for privacy reasons”. “Whatever city, as long as it is in the US”, the woman insisted, but everything was in vain, until a mild travel agent gave a nod to a young man who was waiting a bit further away.
That was 29-year-old Tom Perriello, an exhausted and sad American, who was at the airport to fly back to Charlottesville, Virginia, to attend the funeral of his beloved grandmother. “I saw from his face that he was upset,” recalls Zainab. “I told him: I’m going to ask you the strangest question. Could you travel with my daughter?” The woman explained that the safety of the girl was in danger, if she stayed in the country any longer. And that she would make sure that the girl’s grandmother would wait for the child when they landed in the US, at whatever airport that would be.
Tom Perriello, who was a member of the UN tribunal who had just sued the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and worked as a counsel to the prosecutor of Sierra Leone, considered it a suspicious request. He had been in Sierra Leone long enough to know that not everything went according to the book and that children were being smuggled. He concluded that there must be a direct danger or something very dark. But he knew himself and knew for certain that he would always be sorry if he rejected the desperate woman and the girl.
Tom Perriello accepted the request without too much fuss and immediately started arranging with the travel agent that Maya could take the same flight with him: via Brussels they would fly to Dulles Airport in Virginia in the US. “That was it. That was the last thing I ever saw of that man,” says Zainab. “I waved at them, but gave him no papers, no contact information, nothing. Maya had a bag with her American passport and the contact information of her grandmother. That was all.”
Zainab relied on her feeling that her daughter would be safe with Tom. And that turned out to be true, although the flight was not easy for both Maya and her companion. The girl cried uncontrollably when she saw her mother disappear and was afraid she would never see her again. She especially spoke Krio, the language of Sierra Leone, where Tom had picked up a few words and a lullaby that he kept singing to put the child so suddenly entrusted to her. “I do not remember much of that trip, but he did sing that song … It calmed me down…”, says Maya now, fifteen years later. “I remember his singing and he never lost his temper with me. I was never afraid of him, because he was very friendly. As a child, you pick up such things. I knew he was a good person.”
Despite his good character and mildness, Tom had little experience with children. “On the flight to Brussels, Maya finally lulls to sleep, but half in my seat and half to hers,” says Tom. “I knew enough about kids not to wake her, so I spent most of the flight walking up and down the aisle not to wake her …”
Team of guardian angels
On the next flight to the US, a flight attendant from Liberia was on board. She heard about the work that Tom had done in her home country and came to thank him personally, when Tom told her about the situation with Maya. “When she heard that, she brought our food from the first class and let her colleagues take care of Maya, so that I could take some rest. Maya had a team of guardian angels that day, which ensured that she could safely return home,” says Tom.
When they finally arrived at the airport in Virginia after a long journey, Maya flew into her arms immediately. “I remember seeing my grandmother and running straight to her. And Tom had suddenly disappeared. He has been a kind of spirit for fifteen years. I did not even know his full name,” says Maya.
The modest Tom did not want to disturb the emotional family reunion. “I realized that this trip was about the love and the ties between child, mother and grandmother: I myself was on my way to comfort my own mother with the loss of her fantastic mother”, Tom says. “I’m sure her grandmother looked down on us with a smile when the little Maya ran into the arms of her grandmother.”
For fifteen years, Zainab and her mother had no contact with Tom. Both told the story several times over the years to friends and colleagues, but it was not until last week that someone recognized the story, so that the two could come into contact again.
Zainab was visiting a cousin who had worked for the UN in Africa and she asked her if the woman had ever had contact with “Tom Perriello, the man who had once taken a girl from Sierra Leone on a flight.” At that moment Zainab realized that it was her daughter to go. She googled him: Tom Perriello was a former Senator for Virginia and a diplomat under Barack Obama and had been a candidate for the governorship of Virginia. “And then I saw his face. It was him!”
“Thanking Tom for my life”
Last week, Zainab sent Perriello an email, which he immediately answered. Since then, the three have had almost constant contact with each other. Tom never knew what was going on with the family in Sierra Leone, so Maya suddenly had to leave the country until now. Zainab never knew what kind of trouble Tom faced during the trip: that he was being held with Maya in an airport on the way and that it cost him a lot of phone calls and paperwork to continue his journey, until now. “I think I owe my life to Tom,” says Maya. “I now realize that I might not be there if he had not taken me away.”
Zainab, who could return to the US one month after her daughter, also realizes how lucky she has been with Tom. “I was young and I did not know what kind of a world this is. I was lucky with Tom. I would never do anything like that again.”
Tom would certainly do it again. “A mother who is in such a complicated position … I assumed that I was in a relatively good position to bring Maya home.”
But what Zainab does not forgive herself – that Tom has missed the funeral of his grandmother because of the complications of traveling with an unknown child, is not so bad for Tom. “I’m sure my grandmother would not have liked that.”