Maya Hughes was 5, with two pigtails, a wide smile and a pink Hello Kitty bag. Her mom was looking for someone to get Maya out of the country — fast.
Zainab Sesay was born in Sierra Leone and left when she was 11. Raised in Maryland, she married, worked as a technical writer and thought it would be a great experience to spend some time introducing her daughter Maya to her homeland.
But Sierra Leone was still recovering from a brutal and bloody civil war. The country, the towns were struggling. Her family was struggling.
Maya, who is now 20 and a college student in Chino, Calif., knew none of that then. She recalls her time in Sierra Leone fondly. She was surrounded by cousins and other family. There were clothes washed outside, generators for light, a small bag filled with dirt to create the ball they would use to spend hours playing soccer. She was 5 and delighted and charmed.
But there was a crisis in the family. Maya and Zainab are reluctant to go into detail, but Zainab carefully explained that Maya’s life depended on getting her out of the country quickly and quietly.
So they packed that Hello Kitty bag and — when no one was watching — they headed to the airport.
Zainab began asking ticket agents to point out people traveling to America.
“Any city, she said she’d take any American flying to any city, as long as it was the United States,” Maya recalls her mother telling the agents.
The agents told Maya and Zainab they couldn’t disclose that information. Then, surreptitiously, one nodded toward a white man standing alone, Zainab said.
Tom Perriello was 29, exhausted and grief-stricken.
“He was distraught, I could see it on his face,” Zainab said.
Tom was part of the U.N. war crimes tribunal team that had just indicted Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and at the time, he was working as an adviser to the prosecutor of the Special Court of Sierra Leone.
But he wasn’t at the airport on business. Tom was headed to Charlottesville because his beloved grandmother — the last of his four grandparents still alive — had died. He was heading home for the funeral.
Then came this woman and child.
“I said to him: ‘I’m about to pose the most insane question. Can you travel with my daughter?’,” Zainab said, explaining that her daughter’s safety depended on her getting out of the country — immediately. She told him she would arrange for her mother in the states to meet them anywhere he was flying.
Tom was suspicious. He had worked in the war-torn region long enough to know there were scams and rackets, child trafficking, and diamond smuggling. But that face — Maya’s round, smiling face.
He figured this was a case of imminent danger or something deeply shady. In either case, he knew he would regret having just turned a blind eye. So he started making phone calls to check things out and worked with the airline agent to find a solution that got Maya into the plane before taking off on a journey that crossed three continents.
“That was it. That was the last I saw of that man,” Zainab said. “I waved, I didn’t give him any paperwork, no exchange, no phone number. Maya had a cutesy little bag with her grandmother’s contact information, her U.S. passport and that was it.” But something in her gut told her Maya was safe with Tom.
Maya was in tears, afraid she’d never see her mom again. She was also speaking mostly in Creole — or Krio — the language of Sierra Leone.
From his short time in Sierra Leone, Tom had learned a few words and a song in Krio. He sang the lines he knew over and over again. “Something about today, today,” Maya remembered.
It calmed her. “I don’t remember much. I remember being scared at the airport. And I definitely remember Tom and Tom’s singing. And I remember he never lost patience with me,” Maya said. “I was never afraid of him because he was super nice. As a kid you can pick up on things. I could tell he was super nice. A good person.”
Nice as he was, Tom had little experience with children.
“On the flight from Côte d’Ivoire to Brussels, Maya finally fell asleep. She was across her chair and mine. I knew enough about children not to wake her,” Tom said. “So I spent most of the flight just walking up and down the aisle, so I didn’t wake Maya up.”
And on the final leg of the trip, one of the flight attendants was Liberian and heard about the work Tom’s team had done in her homeland.
She came back to thank him, and he explained the situation. “She brought us meals from first class and had the crew share some babysitting time so I could finally collapse for a few minutes. Maya had a team of guardian angels working to get her home that day,” Tom said.
When they got to Dulles International Airport in Virginia and those frosted, international gates slid open, Maya saw a familiar face for the first time on the trip and bolted.
“I remember seeing my grandma and running to her,” Maya said. “And then Tom, he just disappeared. And for 15 years he’s been a ghost. I never knew his full name.”
Tom didn’t want to get in the way of that reunion.
“It was not lost on me that this journey was about the love and bonds of child, mother, and grandmother, as I traveled home to be with my mom who had just lost her amazing mother,” Tom said. “I know my grandmother was smiling down as I got to see young Maya run into the arms of hers.”
Tom told the wild story to friends and co-workers over the years. Zainab had done the same.
Then last week, Zainab happened to be visiting a cousin who has worked for the United Nations in Africa. The cousin asked, “Hey, did you ever get in touch with Tom Perriello?”
Her cousin said she had heard a story about a man named Tom Perriello who had once flown with a small child from Sierra Leone. She figured it had to be Maya.
Zainab Googled him. A former U.S. congressman for Virginia, a diplomat under President Barack Obama’s administration, a candidate for Virginia governor. Wow. And then she saw his face.
“That was him!” Zainab said.
She emailed Tom last week. And he emailed back. And the three of them have been emailing and talking on the phone filling in the gaps from the harrowing story.
Tom didn’t know the backstory of what was going on with the family in Sierra Leone until now. Zainab didn’t know how many diplomatic hurdles and all the paperwork and calls Tom had to make, that they were detained at a transfer point because he had to get Maya through more international clearances.
“Hearing all of it, I honestly don’t know if I’d be alive today if it wasn’t for Tom,” Maya said.
Zainab realizes how lucky she was. “I was young and distraught at the time. I didn’t know what kind of world this is. And I was lucky it was Tom,” she said. “I’d never do anything like this again.”
“A mother was in a horrific spot but also a very complicated one,” he said. “I figured I was in a better position than most to make sure this was on the level and then work through some high hurdles — high for good reasons — at each stop of the long journey home.”
And, to be truthful, being with Maya eased his grief about his grandmother’s death and actually made that trip easier for him.
Zainab was surprised to learn the details that went into getting Maya home. But there was one detail that absolutely floored her.
“I missed the funeral,” Tom said.
But grandma, he believes, would’ve been okay with it.