In 2013, one mother made a decision that would haunt her for the rest of her life. There, at the airport, she said goodbye to her baby daughter and handed her over to a total stranger. She didn’t know anything about the man, not even his first name.
Zainab Sesay grew up in Sierra Leone but always dreamed about living abroad. When Zainab was in her 20s, she moved to Maryland, built a successful career as a technical writer, and got married. A couple of years later, baby girl Maya was born.
In 2003, Zainab decided to travel to her home country with Maya. She wanted her daughter to see where she grew up and learn about the culture of Sierra Leone. She hadn’t been back home ever since she immigrated to the United States, so it was an excellent opportunity not only to show Maya where she came from but also to visit her friends and relatives.
Zainab figured they would have a great time together, but things didn’t turn out exactly as planned from the very beginning. The situation in Sierra Leone was far from welcoming and calm. It had recently gone through an 11-year civil war, and the people there were struggling.
The war practically destroyed the country. It was much different from how Zainab remembered it as a child. She and Maya were having a difficult time adjusting to the different mentality and culture there.
Instead of using a washing machine, Zainab and Maya had to handwash their clothes outside and use generators for lighting. The main entertainment source for locals was playing soccer with a ball made from a bag of dirt.
After a while, the two had adjusted to the new environment and found joy in the everyday life of Sierra Leone, but not for long. After five months, little Maya had a medical emergency and needed to go back to Maryland.
Zainab couldn’t afford to pay for two tickets back home, and Maya was too young to travel alone. She had to find someone else to go with her daughter, but none of her family members and friends were available at the time.
She had to quickly find someone who would supervise her daughter during the flight. But how could she trust a stranger with her daughter’s life? Zainab was terrified, but she didn’t have a choice. Her daughter’s life was on the line.
Zainab brought Maya to the airport and hoped she could find a trusted individual traveling to the United States that would help her. She asked many people at the airport, but no one wanted to take such a big risk.
Every person Zainab asked refused to help her, even after hearing about her daughter’s medical emergency. The mother felt helpless and decided to ask the representative for Brussell’s Airlines for some advice.
The agent couldn’t help her as it would violate their policy, but seeing how scared and upset Zainab was, she discreetly pointed at one man sitting next to the gate.
It was clear he wasn’t the best candidate for accompanying a child overseas. He looked troubled and upset. Would he agree to help Zainab?
As it turns out, he was also going through a rough patch in life. His grandmother had passed away, and he was flying back home to attend her funeral. His name was Tom Perriello, and he was am Americal lawyer who flew to Sierra Leone to help with the prosecution of war criminals.
Zainab told Tom her story and begged him to help her child. No one else was willing to take responsibility for her daughter, so he was her last shot. Tom felt suspicious and was hesitant to accept her offer. He didn’t know Zainab or Maya and figured it could be some sort of trafficking scam.
Maya’s mother refused to give up and continued convincing Tom to help her daughter. After thinking it through, he decided to accept her offer and help little Maya.
At first, Zainab felt relieved, knowing her daughter would be able to get the treatment she needed, but when Maya finally boarded the plane with Tom, she began having doubts.
“Oh my god, I don’t even know this guy,” she realized. “I didn’t take any of his information. I had no clue how to reach him.” But there was nothing she could do at this point. Maya was already on the plane.
Zainab began to regret her decision. What if the man was dangerous? What if he would do something to her little girl? She couldn’t sleep that night. All she could think of was her little daughter. When Zainab finally closed her eyes, she heard her phone ring.
It was her mother, who was supposed to pick Maya up from the airport. She had some bad news – Zainab’s plan didn’t work out. Maya and Tom were stopped at Côte d’Ivoire because he didn’t have the documents needed to prove that he was eligible to travel with Maya. Zainab was at a loss for words. What did this mean for her daughter?
Maya wouldn’t be allowed to travel back home with Tom without the required paperwork. To accompany her, Tom had to obtain permission as soon as possible. Otherwise, Maya would be sent back to her mother.
They only had 24 hours to provide the necessary paperwork, and Zainab didn’t have a fax machine or internet in Sierra Leone. Maya’s grandmother was the only person who could provide the required documents. But would she be able to do it in such a short notice?
Luckily, a few hours later, Zainab received a call from her mother. This time she had some excellent news. Tom and Maya were on their way to the United States. After they landed in Virginia, Maya’s grandmother thanked the man for his help and drove Maya home. Back then, they still didn’t know Tom’s name.
Zainab and Maya wanted to find Tom and thank him properly for saving her life, but despite their best efforts, they still couldn’t him. They almost gave up until one day, fifteen years later, a mutual friend of Zainab and Tom was able to help them out.
They found Tom’s identity and learned that not only Tom was a successful lawyer, but also a new Governor of Virginia. After returning from his trip to Sierra Leone, he started working at the State Department as a congressman.
Tom never made it to his grandmother’s funeral due to the difficulties they faced at the airport, but he never regretted the sacrifice he made that day. “One of the happier moments in my life was seeing Maya run into her grandmother’s arms,” he said.
In 2019, Maya finally got the chance to meet the man who saved her life. “It was like a weight had been lifted. “It’s just been this ghost of a person, 15 years,” she said. “I want to just hug him, hug him tightly. And thank him.”