The story of Tom and Maya and Zainab is about trust, listening to your heart, and that gut feeling you have when you meet a good person.
And it’s a story that could’ve gone horribly wrong.
It began in 2003 in the Lungi airport in Sierra Leone, the only international airport in the coastal African country.
Maya Hughes was 5, with two pigtails, a wide smile and a pink Hello Kitty bag. Her mom, Zainab Sesay, was looking for someone to get Maya out of the country — fast.
Sesay was born in Sierra Leone and left when she was 11. Raised in Maryland, she married and worked as a technical writer. She wanted to spend some time introducing 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, now 20 and a college student in Chino, Calif., knew none of that then. She recalls her time in Sierra Leone fondly, surrounded by family.
But there was a secret crisis in the family. Maya’s life depended on getting her out of the country quickly and quietly. So they packed that Hello Kitty bag and headed to the airport.
Sesay began asking ticket agents to point out people traveling to America.
The agents told Maya and her mother that they couldn’t disclose that information. Then, surreptitiously, one nodded toward a white man standing alone, Sesay said.
Tom Perriello, 29, was on the U.N. war crimes tribunal team that had just indicted Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. But he wasn’t at the airport on business. He was headed to Charlottesville, Va., for the funeral of his beloved grandmother.
“I said to him: ‘I’m about to pose the most insane question. Can you travel with my daughter?’” Sesay said. She told him that her mother would meet them anywhere in the states he was flying.
Perriello had worked in the war-torn region long enough to know about scams and rackets, child trafficking, and diamond smuggling. But that face — Maya’s round, smiling face.
“That was the last I saw of that man,” Sesay said. But something in her gut told her Maya was safe with Perriello.
From his short time in Sierra Leone, Perriello had learned a few words and a song in Krio, Maya’s language. On the long trip, he sang the lines he knew over and over.
“Something about today, today,” Maya remembered. It calmed her. Arriving at Dulles Airport in Virginia, the frosted, international gates slid open. Maya saw her grandmother and bolted.
“And then Tom, he just disappeared. And for 15 years he’s been a ghost.”
In December, Sesay was 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.
Sesay 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.
She e-mailed Perriello. He e-mailed back. The three have been e-mailing and talking on the phone filling in the gaps.
Sesay knows how lucky she was. Perriello said he’d do it again. “A mother was in a horrific spot but also a very complicated one,” he said.
“I missed the funeral,” Perriello added. But grandma, he believes, would’ve been OK with that.