Mom Found Her ‘North Star’ in Adopted Son

"[He] loved me when I couldn’t love myself"
Benjamin Brown September 12, 2018

When Salifu Sesay was just a toddler living in Sierra Leone, West Africa, rebels attacked his village, slicing the back of his head with a machete. Yet, miraculously, he survived. 

When he later came to the United States on a medical visa, Salifu could make friends with almost anybody, regardless of their gender, nationality, or social standing.

Not only did he touch the lives of these friends but his family, teachers, coaches, and supervisors as well. Yet the one person he had the biggest influence on was his adoptive mother, Ann Miller.

One day in December 2000, in Kansas City, Kansas, Miller’s daughter, Nellie, then 9, wanted to go Christmas shopping. The girl noticed fishbowls around the store to collect money for a charity—with nearby pictures of children whose hands had been chopped off.

“Something about the photographs just gripped me from the very start,” Miller told Humanity.

The store owner informed Miller about a mission called Feed My Lambs International, which helped victims of the black market diamond conflict in Sierra Leone. She later met the mission’s founder, Lonny Houk, and his wife, Katie.

Miller volunteered with the mission. Without any medical experience, all she did was clean—but her involvement got a lot more personal.

A Mysterious Voice

While meeting Houk was a pivotal moment, Miller’s story really began a few months later with an inner calling as she was driving on the highway.

“This voice in my head spoke to me and just said to keep a child from Sierra Leone. I was dumbfounded … this is not what I would’ve normally have done. I have four children of my own already … but I felt very excited,” Miller said.

Salifu Sesay, 6, bandaged up shortly after a surgical procedure
Salifu Sesay, 6, bandaged up shortly after a surgical procedure. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

Miller reconnected with Houk, who was about to travel to Sierra Leone to bring needy kids back on medical visas. He shared many photos from a previous trip, from which Miller could choose a child to foster.

“He basically started flashing them in front of me and I was supposed to pick. It was the most mind-boggling decision.” Miller said.

Miller chose a boy named Francis and a girl named Emma. Yet, when Houk returned from Sierra Leone, he brought two boys, Francis and Salifu.

Ann Miller with a young Salifu and Francis
Ann Miller with a young Salifu Sesay and Francis. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

Emma had vanished, and Salifu wasn’t even on the list. Salifu was living in a Freetown refugee camp with his mother and three siblings when Houk found him, said Miller.

As Houk and his crew were screening patients that needed doctor appointments, 6-year-old Salifu put his hands and chin on a nearby table.

In the dead of night, it was tough to see, but Salifu had wounds from a rebel attack four years prior that killed his uncle and split his family apart. Using a machete to gash the back of his head and neck, the rebels attempted to sever the boy’s head from his torso.

Knowing that Salifu would not get the medical attention he required, Houk took him on the plane.

Meeting Salifu

There were some growing pains early on. Salifu and Francis had never been out of country, spoke different languages from each other, and neither spoke English.

“They were coming basically from third world to first world, so stairs and pizza and water that was actually clear … all of that was totally new to them,” Miller’s daughter, Nellie McCool, told Humanity.

Francis had many psychological issues, and Salifu needed his wounds treated, so Miller spent a lot of time in the doctor’s office.

Salifu and his adoptive siblings
Salifu Sesay with his adoptive siblings. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

Salifu learned how to communicate fairly quickly. He spoke Krio, a blend of languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and West African languages. Miller had some knowledge of both French and Spanish, so she picked up certain Krio words when Salifu spoke.

According to Miller, Salifu “never shut up.”

“He was the most cheerful, lively, happy, humming, singing, dancing child from the get-go,” she said.

Francis, on the other hand, had a tough time adapting. After Salifu’s first surgery, Miller realized she wouldn’t be able to take care of both boys plus her biological children. Francis moved in with a family that could better suit his needs and eventually went back to his home country, where he led a happy life.

Salifu and all the other kids fostered through the mission were meant to come to the United States for medical care and go back when they were healthy. Yet Miller felt a deep connection to Salifu and eventually adopted him. He became Thomas Salifu Sesay Vanasse.

Sal with his special ed teacher and mom in the gym for an event
From left to right: Special education teacher, Jodi Dinkins, Salifu Sesay, and Ann Miller gathered in the gym for an end-of-school program. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

Miller learned how much the cuts on the back of Salifu’s head affected his mental processing. Teaching him about colors at the library had disheartening results.

“I pointed to all kinds of other things that were red … I always had him repeat it and I’d go ‘What color is this?’ and then ‘red, red, red, red, red, red, red,’” Miller said.

“Then I’d take the original item I was holding, I put it under the desk, and I brought it right back up and I asked, ‘What color is this?’ And he just instantly said, ‘I don’t know.’ He had no short-term memory.”

Another area where Salifu struggled was reading. He could comprehend stories being told to him but figuring out what sounds each letter made and reading full sentences proved challenging. By the end of fifth grade, the boy was reading at a 1.5 grade level.

Still, Salifu’s persistence and kindness helped him throughout life.

“It was interesting to hear his kindergarten teacher talk about how, it didn’t matter who the kid was, if he saw someone sitting alone or someone seemed sad, Sal was … trying to include them,” Miller said.

Through his thoughtful words and actions, Salifu fostered a support network which allowed him to exceed everyone’s wildest expectations as he grew.

“There were so many reasons why Sal should’ve just never been successful,” Miller said. “He overcame a language barrier, cultural complete change, climate change, leaving his family, changing his food, major surgery. We did everything you could do to a human being pretty much to this kid and he thrived!”

Growing Up, Meeting Family

By high school, Salifu had proven himself quite the artist, writer, and athlete. It helped that Miller and her kin were artistic themselves.

Salifu’s athleticism was all his own though. His towering stature made him a fearsome force on the football field and he had aspirations of playing for a college team, although after a few injuries and surgery, he gave up that particular goal.

Salifu playing for his high school football team
Salifu Sesay playing for his high school football team. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

Because finances would have made it difficult for her son to attend a four-year college and study engineering, he studied auto mechanics at Johnson County Community College in Kansas.

Salifu always had a fascination with cars, so college was the perfect opportunity to explore that interest.

Right around that time, Miller received a Facebook message from a woman in the U.S. claiming to speak on behalf of Salifu’s biological brother, Gee Master. Miller was skeptical at first, but realized she was legitimate.

Salifu together with his birth family, pre-adoption
Salifu Sesay with his family in Sierra Leone, long before he was adopted by Miller. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

Houk’s mission had shut down and Miller had lost touch with him. She never wanted to deprive Salifu of meeting his family, but with no real way of contacting them, she had effectively given up the search.

Still, when the opportunity arose for her son to visit his home country, she was torn up.

“Here is what I always wanted: to give Salifu a chance to get back in touch with his family, but at that point, I was like ‘I’m not sure I want to share him … he’s been mine for 15 years! Wait a minute!’” Miller said.

She was also unsure Salifu would return safely since Sierra Leone was still a dangerous place to visit in 2016.

Yet, Salifu addressed her concerns, rolling his eyes, saying, “Mom, I’m kind of hard to kill.”

The next day, Miller and Salifu spoke with Gee on the phone and learned Salifu’s parents were both alive and that he was actually a year younger than what his birth certificate said.

This was all mind-boggling for the young man, who was up all night questioning what he had just found out. Yet, hearing his brother speak for the first time solidified for Miller that this trip was something Salifu absolutely needed to do.

Salifu’s Impact

Over the 15 years they had known each other, Salifu and Miller made a lot of memories. Miller recalled one lengthy conversation they had in November 2016, after his trip.

Salifu during middle school
Salifu Sesay as a middle school student. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

The pair covered a wide variety of topics, from a drawing project that Salifu had wanted to do with his brother to his idea to move in with two friends from high school.

Yet the real focus seemed to be on how far Miller had come. Over the 15 years she’d known him, she had overcome a number of challenges, including a tough divorce.

Miller said that by the time she pulled her life together, her son knew it.

“He’d seen it. He’d felt it,” Miller said.

The following day, Miller found Salifu, just 21 years old, dead in his bed. The full autopsy showed no biological reason for his passing.

“Nothing about Sal’s life made sense,” Miller said. “He shouldn’t have survived the injury. He wasn’t the child that was supposed to come to me. He never should’ve been able to read … so, of course he died without an explanation because nothing in his life had made any sense, his death shouldn’t either.”

Salifu in a classroom alongside his fellow students
Salifu Sesay in an elementary school classroom playing with his fellow students. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

Miller continued to feel his presence in subtle ways, similar to that voice on the highway over a decade prior.

“He came to me twice: once right after I found his body, while I was still on the phone with the police,” Miller said. “He came to me a couple of days later in the early morning … like a lucid dream or something.”

Miller also recalled times where, despite a hearing loss making most ambient music inaudible to her, she could pick out one song: a combination of Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

What made these songs so meaningful is that “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” was played at Salifu’s funeral, and 10 years prior, Miller told her daughter she’d want “What a Wonderful World” played when she passed.

Miller had several stories involving one or both songs since Salifu’s death, the most memorable of which involved Salifu’s friend from high school who had recently gotten married. His wife was pregnant; just before passing away, Salifu agreed to be the baby’s godfather. His friend told him the baby’s middle name would be “Thomas” after Salifu’s English name.

When Miller received the birth announcement months later, she procrastinated about how to respond for months.

Finally, when she picked up a card, she thought, “Oh! I know what I’ll say! I’m gonna write this card as if I’m Sal!” Miller said.

She opened up a musical card that played “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” and Miller knew her son was with her.

Miller holding a young Salifu
Ann Miller with a young Salifu Sesay. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

“You can call it a coincidence if you want but it’s not. It’s just his way of saying, ‘Yeah, I’m watching over ya,’” she said.

Since his passing in 2016, Miller has done a variety of things to sustain her son’s legacy. Maintaining a relationship with Salifu’s family, she’s using the money set aside for his tuition to pay for his siblings in Sierra Leone to study.

The mother has also started a scholarship fund for young immigrants/refugees who aspire to go to college. She recently awarded the first Salifu Sesay Perseverance Award to one lucky candidate.

Now Miller is working on starting a 5K run to help fund the scholarship as well as a book chronicling Salifu’s various challenges and triumphs. The book is written, although Miller is looking for a publisher.

While the wounds of her loss have yet to fully heal, Miller hopes that, in spreading her son’s story, she can uplift the world. He’s already inspired so many in his life.

“[Sal’s story has] just now become kind of like an encouragement to me to just make a statement with your life and who you are, especially in your struggles and the things that you suffer in life … like a badge of honor,” McCool said.

“Sal just had a big heart. It was an old soul from the very beginning. He truly truly was for other kids,” Miller said. “Sal just set such a good example for me … Sal loved me when I couldn’t love myself.”

“That’s something I’ll take forever from him. He was just my North Star.”

Salifu Sesay as a young adult
Salifu Sesay as a young adult. (Courtesy of Ann Miller)

Got an Inspiring Story that you want to tell? E-mail me at [email protected]