In a viral Twitter thread Wednesday, Maya Hughes, a 20-year-old college student in California, revealed a wild story: In a desperate ordeal when she was 5 years old, a kind stranger helped her fly back the U.S. from Sierra Leone.
“It was a life & death type situation so my mom had to get me out but she couldn’t come with me so she had to find someone ASAP in the airport to bring me back to America,” Hughes wrote. She continued that someone agreed to accompany her to the U.S. even though “my mom didn’t know this man at all whatsoever” and he even tried to sing in Krio — Sierra Leonean creole — to the “screaming, crying 5 year old he had only met 2 secs ago” to calm her.
Through an unexpected chain of events 15 years later, she and her mom finally found out who the man was: Tom Perriello, who went on to become a Virginia congressman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
He confirmed the contours of the story on Twitter on Thursday — even that he sang to Hughes in Krio, albeit acknowledging that his singing was “tone-deaf.”
The intercontinental story, 15 years in the making, is a long and winding one.
In 2003, Hughes and her mother, Zainab Sesay, went to Sierra Leone, where Sesay grew up, to visit extended family for the first time since Sesay immigrated to the U.S. more than a decade earlier.
But during the visit, according to Sesay, Hughes experienced a medical emergency that required her to seek immediate care in the U.S. Unable to return with her daughter because she had to address some other family matters, Sesay went to the airport to buy a last-minute plane ticket.
She also needed to find an adult willing to accompany her 5-year-old back to the U.S. Out of desperation, she asked the ticket agent if she knew of anyone waiting for a flight going anywhere in the U.S. — “any of the 50 states,” Sesay recalled saying to the agent.
After some convincing from Sesay, the agent gestured toward Perriello, who at the time was working as an adviser and spokesman for a special United Nations war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, prosecuting leaders for human rights abuses.
“Actually, how she stated it in Krio, ‘Well, you know, that white guy over there is traveling,’” Sesay recalled. “I was about to ask him the most insane question anyone could possibly ask — if he could travel to with my daughter to the States.”
She pleaded with a “distraught” Perriello, she said, who resisted, explaining that he was on his way to attend his grandmother’s funeral. Also, the court was about to indict Liberia’s then-dictator, Charles Taylor, for war crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war.
“It was in some ways, the worst possible emotional space to be in,” Perriello said.
But sensing her urgency and desperation, as well as understanding the country’s precarious humanitarian situation, he agreed to help.
After saying goodbye to her daughter and watching the flight take off, the gravity of the moment hit Sesay.
“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.’”
After multiple layovers and some bureaucratic complications — and with the help of some kind flight attendants who gave them first-class meals and traded off babysitting duties, Perriello remembered — the two made it to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, where Sesay’s mother, living in Maryland, drove to pick up Hughes.
Hughes said she recalls “a lot of chaos that day” but was heartened by Perriello’s kindness and efforts to soothe her.
“I just remember crying a lot on the plane. I remember him trying to calm me down,” she said. “That’s all I remember, really, just him trying to calm me down on the plane. He was really nice.”
A month later, Sesay returned to the U.S.
Over the intervening years, the strangers wondered what happened to the others.
It’s been an emotional week, and I think I didn’t realize how much closure I needed on the experience.
Tom Perriello, Democratic former Virginia congressman and gubernatorial candidate
“We’ve talked about it a lot,” Hughes said. “Sometimes I tease her that she gave me to a stranger.”
Perriello went on to a wide-ranging career in public service and politics, serving in Congress, leading the advocacy arm of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, working as a State Department special envoy in the Obama administration and running for governor of Virginia in 2017.
But through all that time, he said, he wondered about the young girl unexpectedly in his care on that long flight, telling the story to a few close friends and colleagues.
Even recently, he recounted the complicated saga to some of his closest friends. “They basically said, ‘Yeah, we’re not sure we even believe this,’” he said.
At the time, when he returned to Sierra Leone, he thought he would try to track down Hughes and Sesay. But between mourning the loss of his grandmother and Taylor being indicted and later ousted, “it certainly was not something that was front of mind,” he said.
A colleague who knew one of Sesay’s cousins ended up being the missing link.
According to Sesay, years ago, her cousin mentioned that she had heard a similar story through that colleague and that “this could be this guy,” but she didn’t know his name. Without much information, Sesay wasn’t sure how to find this unknown man.
It all came together a week ago, when Sesay’s cousin, whom Sesay hadn’t been in touch with for a while, was visiting the U.S. and mentioned the story again.
“She said, ‘Hey, Zainab, did you ever track Tom Perriello down?’ And I said, ‘Who’s that?’” Sesay recalled. “She said, ‘The guy who you said brought Maya back. Remember? I told you he’s a colleague of a colleague.’
“I said, ‘No, I never could find him.’ It was like looking for a ghost. I don’t even remember the guy’s name.”
After obtaining an old email address from her cousin’s colleague, Sesay sat down last Monday to email Perriello, relating the entire odyssey and apologizing how out of the blue it was but wondering if there was a chance that he was this mystery person.
On Wednesday she arrived at work, checked her email, and there it was: a response from Perriello, confirming the story, that he was in fact the stranger who safely took her daughter back to the U.S. all those years ago.
“I jumped out of my seat, and my co-workers are like, ‘What the heck is wrong with you?!’”
Perriello helped Sesay fill in the blanks of what happened between her desperately pleading with him at the airport to accompany her daughter and Hughes’ safely reaching her grandmother.
On Perriello’s end, the story had a sad twist: He got to witness Maya’s reunion with her grandmother, but the ordeal caused him to miss his connecting flight to his grandmother’s funeral.
“That really dampened my heart,” Sesay said. “It was horrible — I didn’t realize.”
Over the last week, they’ve continued to talk via email and phone — “where we put all the pieces of the puzzle together,” Perriello said — and they said they hope to reunite in person soon.
“It’s been an emotional week, and I think I didn’t realize how much closure I needed on the experience,” he said.
After hearing about the whole saga from her mother on Wednesday, Hughes tweeted about it.
“I hadn’t even realized she did what she did, going on Twitter. Heck, I didn’t even know she had a Twitter account, honestly,” Sesay said, adding that she is glad that the story’s popularity can shed light on the kindness of strangers. “All I want to put out there is what a great human being he is.”