How a mother lost in air travel chaos was found

Cyber campaign helps Kenyan mom reunite with daughter

How a mother lost in air travel chaos was found

Until that moment, Mwangale had been able to convince herself that everything was going to be fine, just as she had repeatedly promised her mother in Kenya it would be. But now the awful truth was sinking in: Her mother, Sophia Atila Kafu, was trapped at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and she had no way to reach her.

Millions of travellers across the globe were stranded by the cloud of volcanic ash that shut down much of Europe’s airspace for nearly a week. But few, if any, were potentially in as much trouble at that moment as Kafu. At 64, Kafu had never been outside Kenya. She had never been on a plane, never even seen the inside of an airport, and she spoke only Swahili and Luhya. She had left home with less than €20 in cash, about $25, and her cellphone worked only in Kenya.

Mwangale, her youngest child, was graduating from college, the first of Kafu’s 12 children to do so. Trouble was, the ceremony was in Nova Scotia, at St Francis Xavier University, and she was thousands of kilometres away, with no direct flights between Kenya and North America. But Mwangale was determined that her mother attend. “She gathered all her courage for me,” Mwangale said of her mother.
Kafu, a widow, would say later that she had put her faith in God when she set out from her village. But when nature unleashed a disaster, stranding her at Schiphol, it was a network of strangers, energised by a desperate message put out on the Internet, that came to her rescue.

By the time Mwangale, who had undertaken her own time-consuming trip to meet her mother in Toronto, arrived there on April 15, Kafu had been at Schiphol for nearly 19 hours. Mwangale made several calls to agents at KLM, trying to find just one who would go “beyond the call of duty,” as she put it.
But everyone told her that there was too much chaos at Schiphol, and too many stranded passengers to go looking for one in particular.

After several hours, Mwangale made her way to the hotel room where she and her mother had intended to spend the night. But she couldn’t sleep. So she watched the news and stayed awake all night — just as her mother did when Mwangale was flying home for a visit.

Help arrives
Luckily, Mwangale had help in her campaign. From Boston, her friend Paula Donovan, was calling everyone she could think of. Her colleagues from the advocacy organisation AIDS-Free World also joined in. But by April 16 in Toronto — about 38 hours after Kafu had landed in Amsterdam — everyone was feeling a little desperate. So Donovan sent an e-mail blast to her colleagues. People began forwarding the message, which asked to be put in contact with “any kind soul” willing “to talk to us and search for Sophia.” It took only about two hours for the network to work its magic.

Donovan’s plea went to an AIDS-Free World employee in San Francisco. Within minutes it was on its way to a lawyer in Washington, to that lawyer’s father, a senior executive at Delta Airlines, a KLM partner, and then to another Delta executive in Atlanta. Two hours after the message was sent, George Bougias, Delta’s regional manager for customer service, got a message on his BlackBerry. Suspicious that it might be an Internet prank, Bougias called the number listed in the message. Mwangale answered. She said, “Please, please, yes, it’s a true story, help me out!”

Bougias asked Mwangale to send him photos of her mother. The pictures popped up on his BlackBerry and Bougias was on his way. By 10:40 pm, he had deployed six security agents to comb the terminals. About 2,000 people were camping out in Schiphol, and most of them were now asleep.

Shortly thereafter, they were joined by another team: Jacqueline Wittebrood, who had received a message from an associate, and her friend Fezekile Kuzwayo, who speaks Swahili. Just before midnight, the women and the security agent accompanying them had finished scouring one terminal. The agent suggested that they check the isolated area around the airport casino. There, they found two women lying on cots. One was African, but too young — maybe 40. But perhaps the other one? “Mama Sophia?” Kuzwayo called. And then, in Swahili: “We’ve been sent here by your daughter.” The woman smiled and they saw the gap in her teeth, just like the ones in the photos that Mwangale had sent.

Four days later, once the ash had cleared, mother was reunited with daughter. They stayed up talking and laughing in their hotel room until 4 am. Kafu is looking forward to seeing her daughter graduate on May 2.
The New York Times

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