When you’re a child, traveling alone can be scary. However, flying from one country to another alone? That’ s downright terrifying and for one little girl, she would be faced with a situation that she couldn’t possibly comprehend. At only five years old, she was placed in the care of a complete stranger when taking an international flight. Leaving behind her mother in Africa and heading to the United States, she found herself having to trust a man she didn’t know with her safety.
You won’t believe this touching story that spans two continents and one girl’s incredible journey of discovery.
For five-year-old Maya Hughes, international travel was a regular routine. Although she grew up in the country of Sierra Leone in West Africa with her mother Zainab, they eventually migrated to the United States in search of a better life. However, growing homesick for her family, Zainab decided to take Maya back to West Africa for an extended six-month trip in 2003.
Unfortunately, the trip would have to be cut short. Maya became extremely ill four months into their stay and with the medical facilities less than adequate in Sierra Leone, her mother made the difficult decision to send her back to the United States. According to May, it was a “life or death” situation and her mother knew it was in her best interest to return home.
A One-Way Ticket
To make matters worse, Zainab still had family issues to attend to and couldn’t leave with the country. Therefore, she had to make the difficult decision to purchase her daughter a one-way ticket and send her back to the states by herself.
One Big Problem
However, there was a problem with the mother’s plan. Even though Maya could legally travel on her own, she couldn’t on an international flight with so many different connections. What was the mother to do? Maya would need a chaperone to go with her, but would anyone be willing to help?
A Desperate Plea
Realizing her daughter’s health was in jeopardy and with no time to waste, Zainab headed to the airport and began asking strangers if they would be her daughter’s escort. The mother had no other option, even if it meant entrusting Maya’s safety to someone she didn’t know.
Excuses and More Excuses
Of course, the people she approached all had their reasons why they wouldn’t want to look after someone’s daughter. Who would want that kind of responsibility? As time began to run out, Zainab approached a gate agent and asked them to point out any passengers who were flying back to the United States. There had to be someone who would help her, right?
The Lone Man
The gate agent pointed out a solo white man standing in the corner. She revealed to the desperate mother that he was traveling alone, and he would most likely be her best option. Nervous and unsure, Maya’s mother approached the man, hoping he wouldn’t reject her.
Not Mentally Capable
After asking the man for his help, he initially refused, revealing to Zainab that he was not emotionally stable enough to take care of Maya. “He told my mom he was in no mental state to travel with a minor because he had just lost his grandmother,” Maya revealed on Twitter.
However, the man realized the mother was desperate. Even though he didn’t know her and was flying back for his grandmother’s funeral, he agreed to watch over Maya. Zainab knew sending her daughter on a plane with a man she didn’t know was risky, but what other choice did she have?
Immediately, Zainab booked Maya on the man’s flight and hastily send goodbye. She then watched the man take her daughter’s hand and board the plane. It was an emotional moment for the mother, as she watched the plane take off with her only child.
What Have I Done?
“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,’” she revealed to the Huffington Post.
However, the time for regrets had passed. She had to believe the man would honor his word and keep her daughter safe.
The Journey Begins
Terrified and alone, Maya began her journey with the strange man from Africa to the United States. The traveling pair would make a variety of connections, stopping in multiple countries along the way. Thankfully, the man had help when it came to his babysitting duties.
After revealing his peculiar situation the flight attendants, they all pitched in on every flight to make their journey as comfortable as possible. The man and Maya even received first class meals to make sure they were well-fed throughout their incredibly long journey.
Chaos And Uncertainty
Despite being only five at the time, Maya remembers the day well and the chaos that came with it. “I just remember crying a lot on the plane,” she told the Huffington Post. “I remember him trying to calm me down. That’s all I remember, really, just him trying to calm me down on the plane.”
Singing To Her
Maya also remembers the man singing to her on the flight in her native tongue of Krio. Even though she was screaming and crying, he tried to keep her calm in a tough situation. Unfortunately, the journey was simply too traumatizing for the young child to settle down.
After a series of long flights, Maya and her adult companion would finally arrive at Dulles International Airport just outside of Washington, D.C. Thankfully, there was a familiar face waiting for the distraught child when they arrived–her grandmother.
One Month Later
Maya and her mother’s separation would last just over a month before they were reunited back in the United States. The topic of the man who had helped them was a regular topic of conversation in their home throughout the years.
A Risky Situation
For Maya, it was easy to give her mother a hard time about sending her off with a complete stranger. “I always gave my mom a hard time because he was a complete stranger, and it was risky,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Thankfully, the man had honored his word and nothing had happened, but the situation could have ended very differently.
Who Was He?
As the years passed, both Maya and her mother questioned the identity of the man who had helped them. The story of Maya’s journey was often told to family members and friends, and this eventually led Maya’s cousin discovering the identity of the man who had helped her so many years prior.
The Same Story
According to her cousin, she had heard the same type of story from one of her co-workers back in West Africa. Unfortunately, Maya didn’t get much more in terms of information since she and her cousin lost touch. However, years later, that all would change.
Six Years Pass
When Maya’s cousin decided to visit the United States, she brought up the story again, asking Zainab, “Hey, Zainab, did you ever track Tom Perriello down?’ And I said, ‘Who’s that?’”
Then the truth was revealed…
The Man Identified
According to the cousin, Tom Perriello was a colleague of a colleague and…the man who watched over Maya when she flew to the United States all those years ago. To say that both Zainab and Maya were shocked would be an understatement. So, they set out to find him and eventually discovered his email.
Zainab decided to email the man and thank him for what he did for her daughter. She went into detail about the journey (in case he didn’t remember) and expressed her everlasting gratitude for keeping her daughter safe. It was an odd email to write for the mother, and she apologized just in case she had sent it to the wrong person, but she hoped, in the end, he would appreciate her thanks.
It Was Me
After several days of waiting, the mother received a reply from Tom who did confirm that she had the right person. In the time since he had accompanied Maya, he had gone on to have quite a successful career politics and even worked under the Obama administration as an envoy in the State Department.
Like A Movie
For Perriello, the experience bringing Maya to the United States from Africa had been like a scene out of a movie because it was so bizarre. He had just lost his grandmother, was flying home for a funeral and then a strange woman approached him asking to take care of his child. “It’s an incredibly vivid memory that seems like something out of a movie. It just wasn’t clear if it was a happy or a sad movie.”
“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,” Perriello told the media. “One of the happier moments in my life was seeing Maya run into her grandmother’s arms.”
Taking to Twitter
After her mother revealed she had made contact with the man who had helped her all those years ago, Maya took to social media to describe the incredible story.
“My mom has been trying to find this man for 15 years – we never got his name or anything,” Hughes tweeted. “My mom emailed him, and this man remembered everything. He said he never forgot about me or the songs he was trying to sing in Krio… He had told his family about it and everything.”
Maya’s tweet would end up going viral as her inspirational story made waves throughout social media. Even Perriello commented on her tweet, saying he was so pleased she was “shining bright” in life. The two hoped to meet one day and reconnect. For Maya and her mother, meeting him would be the perfect ending.
A Happy Ending
“For 15 years I was looking for this ghost,” Zainab said. “I hope to meet with him to get the opportunity to shake his hand, hug him and thank him for having done that.”
Maya also knows she wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for the man and will forever be in his debt. Thankfully, the mother and daughter got their wish and reunited with Tom in the following months.
What an incredible story.