Mother reunites with stranger she trusted to get her child out of Sierra Leone 15 years ago

A tearful reunion, 15 years in the making

Imagine being so desperate for your child's safety that you put her in the hands of a complete stranger and rely on him to do the right thing? That's the situation one mother faced 15 years ago, as she tried to get her daughter out of a war-ravaged nation and to the U.S. for medical care.

Twenty-year-old Maya Hughes and her mother Zainab Sesay call California home now, but 15 years ago, the two were on an extended African stay in Sesay's native Sierra Leone.

"I wanted her to learn every bit of my background … kind of get back to my roots and visit my grandmother," Sesay told CBS News' Dana Jacobson. "Maya picked up on speaking Krio within two weeks of when we got there and completely forgot how to speak English."

But Sierra Leone had just emerged from a devastating civil war and was not an easy place for a mother and small child. It was something Sesay said she hadn't fully thought through.

One night a fire broke out in Maya's room burning the mattress she was sleeping on. Her mother raced to rescue her. Maya can remember the pajamas she was wearing and the smoke, but not much after that.

"She couldn't stay here anymore," Sesay said.  "I gathered every penny I owned at that moment, went to the airport … I only had enough money to go buy a ticket just for her and that is where the story of Tom Perriello began."
 
Perriello is a former U.S. congressman, but at the time he was a young lawyer in Sierra Leone working on a war crimes court. He was at the airport to fly home for his grandmother's funeral. Sesay had asked the counter clerk to see who was traveling to the United States. The airline employee pointed to Perriello.

"I said, "Excuse me, sir. Could you please travel with my daughter. It's an emergency,'" Sesay recalled.

"Of course my response was 'Um no, and may I repeat heck no,'" Perriello recalled.
 
So, Sesay pleaded with him until he agreed. The two strangers boarded a plane to head home. But first, they had to make a stop in Côte d'Ivoire. Then a second stop in Brussels, Belgium, before heading to the states. In all, about 7,500 miles and 20 hours of travel.

"I was just crying and crying. And he was trying to calm me down," Maya recalled. "He was singing to me on the plane. I remember that. He was singing in Krio."
 
"So this was a long and complicated journey that frankly had plenty of drama and complications along the way," Perriello said. "It wasn't that I knew one song, it was just basically one verse over and over again for about an hour."
 
When they landed at Dulles Airport in Virginia, Perriello got the little girl safely to her grandmother. But it was too late to make his connecting flight. He missed his own grandmother's funeral.
 
Sesay would join her daughter about a month after she sent her daughter to the U.S. For 15 years, they never saw or spoke to Perriello. They never had the chance to thank him until we arranged for a face-to-face reunion in New York City after the trio reconnected by email thanks to one of Sesay's cousins.
 
"For 15 years, I felt like I've been looking for a ghost, a person that didn't exist," Sesay said.

"I think it's the start of something else. I want to call it closure, but it feels like a new beginning 'cause I re-found him," Maya said.
 
"I can never thank him enough. No matter what I do from this point forward, it will never be enough for what he did," Sesay said.
 
"You have lots of reasons to say no to something and there are moments to say yes. And I'm really glad that I did in that case as crazy as it was," Perriello said.

"I don't want to cry, but I'm really emotional about it, 'cause I feel like he saved my life, because, if I would have stayed, it's, I don't know where I would have been," Maya  said. "I think it was destiny 'cause it could have been anybody, and anything could have happened and he brought me back here. So, I don't think I can say thank you, really."