Tom Perriello’s Caring Overrode His Own Grief

Editors’ Note: Reprinted from The Washington Post, December 17, 2018.

A mother’s leap of faith at an African airport, and a 15-year mystery

Maya Hughes at age 5.

The story of Tom and Maya and Zainab is about trust, about listening to your heart over your mind, and about 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 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.

The flight wasn’t easy.

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.”

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