One woman’s quest to find a stranger whose act of kindness years ago has helped shape who she is today, has finally come to an end. Ayda Zugay was an almost 12-year-old refugee fleeing the former Yugoslavia with her 17 year old sister when a stranger handed them the envelope on a flight to the United States in 1999. The woman made them promise not to open it until they got off the plane. Inside, the girls found dangly earrings and a $100 bill. A note in the envelope said “I am so sorry that the bombing of your country has caused your family any problems. I hope your stay in America will be a safe and happy one for you — Welcome to America — please use this to help you here. A friend from the plane — TRACY ”
Zugay says that money helped feed them for an entire summer. The two girls scraped by staying with their brother, who was a college student in Iowa at the time. And it’s still shaping the way both sisters live their lives 23 years later. She still remembers how she felt the first time she read the message on the envelope and how the word “safe” was underlined. “It was the first time that I felt, like, relief. This is a safe place, and we can build a future here,” she says. “I think that’s why the letter really resonated with me at that time, because we went from like this drastic horror into this beautiful act of kindness” she said.
Every year, on the anniversary of her arrival in the US, Zugay renewed her search to find her. Recently, Zugay’s video searching for Tracy was shared by Refugees International’s Twitter page and it went viral. She shared clues in the video such as “Tracy” was traveling with a friend and they both appeared to be in their late 30s or early 40s. One was a brunette with a ponytail and the other had mid-length blonde hair. Both women toted tennis rackets and they both spoke about playing tennis in Paris. She believed they may have lived in Minnesota, possibly within a few hours of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. The flight they met on was from Amsterdam to Minnesota on May 31, 1999.
Her years-long search finally came to an end when Tracy Peck, a 70-year-old massage therapist living in Minneapolis received a series of texts and calls — first from her tennis coach, then from her best friend. “Have you seen the CNN story?” both of them asked. “That has to be you.” Peck had no idea what they were talking about but she pulled over and opened the link they’d sent. A picture of a letter popped onto Peck’s iPhone screen. As soon as she saw it, she says, memories from a plane ride 23 years ago came rushing back and how frightened the sisters seemed. She said they reminded her of her own daughters and their experience fleeing war was heartbreaking, unlike anything she’d ever dealt with.
She cried as she read how the gift had changed their lives. With the help of friends and family with a whirlwind of tweets, emails and texts- less than a day later, Peck and the sisters reunited on an emotional Zoom call. Peck said she’s forever changed by hearing this latest chapter in their story. “It warms my heart beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she said. Peck says she’d worked to teach her children to be kind, telling them you never know how your actions might affect others but she never imagined she’d experience such a stunning example of how truly important an act of kindness can be.