This is Maya Hughes, a 20-year-old California resident, and she recently shared a childhood story on Twitter. Buckle up, this is a wild one.
The story starts in 2003, when Hughes was 5 years old and her mother decided to move to Sierra Leone — her home country — for six months.
One day, about four months into their stay, Hughes experienced a medical emergency that required her to return to the US as soon as possible for treatment.
“It was a life and death-type situation,” she tweeted.
Hughes’ mother, Zee Sesay, told BuzzFeed News that she desperately needed to find a way for her daughter to get to their relatives in Maryland, but she was unable to leave Sierra Leone and accompany her to the US, for private family reasons.
Sesay said she rushed to the airport and asked an employee at the ticket counter to direct her to somebody traveling to the US.
Sesay told BuzzFeed News that she was first met with resistance. The employee told her it was against the airline’s policy to provide that information. After some convincing, Sesay said, the woman directed her toward one man.
“I walked over to this gentleman and asked if he could travel with Maya,” Sesay told BuzzFeed News. “At first he said no, saying he was traveling to the US for a funeral.”
Somehow, though, Sesay said she was able to convince the man to fly her 5-year-old daughter back to the US.
“I stood by and watched the plane took off and not realizing I had handed my kid off to a complete stranger,” Sesay told BuzzFeed News of that day. “It was adrenaline, I wasn’t in the right state of mind and I wasn’t thinking properly ... and that was the end of it. I never again saw this man.”
Hughes told BuzzFeed News what she remembers of that day is “a lot of chaos and crying nonstop on the plane.”
She said the man sang to her in the little Krio (or Sierra Leonean Creole) he knew in order to get her to stop crying.
Hughes landed safely at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, where her grandmother, Sesay’s mother, was waiting to pick her up.
Hughes said she and her mother talked about this experience often through the years, but neither of them knew the mystery man’s name, so they had no way of finding him.
“I always gave my mom a hard time because he was a complete stranger and it was risky,” Hughes said.
About six years ago, Sesay said, she told this story to her cousin, who mentioned she had a former colleague who had experienced something similar, but nothing ever developed from there.
Then earlier this month, the same cousin asked Sesay, “Hey, did you ever get in touch with Tom Perriello?”
Sesay said that was the first time she learned of the man’s name. She found Perriello’s email address and sent him a note detailing her story.
“He replied!” said Sesay. Perriello was indeed the mystery man.
The two have been in touch since Monday, with Perriello filling in parts of the journey from Sierra Leone to Virginia that Sesay never knew about.
“This man having accepted a kid from a complete stranger, it’s a testament to the kind of person he is,” Sesay said.
Perriello, executive director of the Open Society Foundation and a former congressman from Virginia, confirmed the story on Twitter, calling it “one of the craziest experiences of my entire life.”
“It’s an incredibly vivid memory that seems like something out of a movie,” Perriello told BuzzFeed News. “It just wasn’t clear if it was a happy movie or a sad movie.”
He said he remembers being at the airport flying back to the US for his grandmother’s funeral. He was working at the time — “I was literally working multiple phones” — when he first encountered Hughes and her mother.
Perriello told BuzzFeed News he remembers singing the same verse of the one Krio song he knew for an hour straight hoping to settle Hughes, who was crying.
There were many connecting flights the pair took before arriving in Virginia and meeting Hughes’ grandmother.
“There was some serious drama on each leg of the trip, as there should have been under the circumstances, but we worked with officials and some angels at the airlines to make sure Maya got home safely to her grandmother’s care,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Since Perriello had to exit the arrivals area of the airport to meet Hughes’ grandmother, he actually ended up missing his connecting flight — and his grandmother’s funeral.
But, he said, he still was able to experience a “grandmother connection.”
“One of the happier moments in my life was seeing Maya run into her grandmother’s arms,” Perriello said.
Perriello said it was just two weeks ago that he shared this story with some friends over breakfast. He said he’s very moved Hughes and her mother reached out and looks forward to speaking to them in greater detail.
Hughes told BuzzFeed News she’s thankful for Perriello’s act of kindness.
“He’s a genuinely good person, which is something we don’t have a lot of anymore,” she said. “If it wasn’t for him I don’t know how I would’ve made it back. We’ve been trying to find him because we never really got to say thank you.”
Hughes and Sesay both said they would now like to meet Perriello in person.
“For 15 years I was looking for this ghost,” Sesay said. “I hope to meet with him to get the opportunity to shake his hand, hug him, and thank him for having done that.”