On May 31, 1999, sisters Vanja Contino and Ayda Zugay were on a plane from Amsterdam to Minnesota, terrified and fleeing the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. They were only 17 and 11 at the time, respectively. Looking back, they remember the intense fear they felt, but the two also recall the kindness of a woman sitting next to them who forever changed their lives.
Contino and Zugay sat next to an American woman who had just come back from a Parisian vacation where she watched the French Open with some friends. Now, she was heading home to be with her family. Contino and Zugay, on the other hand, had just been put on a plane by their parents and were leaving behind their home and everything they knew. Even though there were communication barriers, the sisters were able to share their story with the woman, who responded with compassion. “I remember how kind she was to us,” Zugay recalled. “She was almost treating us like we were family.”
At the end of their flight, the woman handed the sisters an envelope, with instructions to not read it or open it until they had left the plane. There was a note written on the outside that began, “To: The girls from Yugoslavia.” The note continues, “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.” The stranger included a smiley face and a heart in her note, and inside the envelope was a $100 bill and a pair of gold dangle earrings.
The sisters were shocked. “I couldn't believe that somebody had so much empathy,” Zugay said. The two moved in with a relative who didn’t have much money either. They lived off of that $100 for the entire summer, using it to pay for pancake mix that they would mix with water and Coca-Cola to make them feel full. They often attribute that generous gift to not only feeding them for those months but also feeding their souls for years. Contino, now 41 years old and an anesthesiologist, uses the stranger’s gift as an example to teach her two daughters the importance of giving to those in need. And for Zugay, now 35 years old, the envelope laid the groundwork for her career with nonprofits.
Zugay had always wanted to find and personally thank Tracy. She contacted hotels and airlines, posted on Reddit, read Redditors’ many theories, reached out to touring companies, and hyper-analyzed the envelope—but always hit dead end after dead end. After nearly a decade of searching, she widened her scope to ask for help. In April 2022, several refugee advocacy organizations posted a video of Zugay sharing her story and asking anyone with tips to reach out. In May 2022, Zugay shared their story with CNN and provided all of the research she had done thus far. At that time, they only knew that her name was Tracy, she played tennis, and she would likely be living near the Twin Cities.
After sifting through thousands of tips sent by readers, she finally found her answer on Twitter. “You are looking for my mom Tracy Peck! Her handwriting is unmistakable. She remembers you girls from the flight!” Peck, a now 70-year-old Minnesotan, cried as she read the CNN article. She had no idea how much her generosity meant to the sisters and had no idea one of them was searching for her. Peck didn’t know how to contact them but knew she needed to.
After help from family and friends, tweets, emails, and texts, the three were finally able to meet on Zoom in the spring of 2022. “Hello beautiful ladies!” Peck joyfully cried as the call began. Zugay held up the perfectly preserved envelope and said, “It’s been more than 20 years.” Peck told the sisters how she felt hearing their story on that flight decades ago, explaining, “It just touched my heart so much that I just felt compelled that I had to help you in some way.” Contino added, “Your generosity is still in me, because I've been paying it forward ever since.”
The heartfelt and long-awaited meeting continued on with Zugay telling Peck all the things she has been longing to say, like how that $100 kept the two of them fed for the summer and how she was able to accomplish so much afterward. She expressed her gratitude and explained how she now feels like she can “move forward and thrive.” Zugay said to Peck, “Thank you for reminding me to be strong.”
Peck countered that it is she who is grateful. “I just want to encourage everybody in the world to just be kind,” she began. “What does it hurt? Except it helps everyone. Smile, make eye contact, help anyone that's in trouble or in danger. And I just don't know why anyone wouldn't do that. So, I'm very, very thankful that I have found you girls, that you have found me.”
“Yes, we did,” Zugay laughed with disbelief. “You did, after all that long time,” Peck said. “And we have a lot of catching up to do.”
The three women have been taking every opportunity to catch up, soaking in every moment. During the call, Contino introduced Peck to her daughters, and Peck introduced the women to one of her daughters and two of her grandchildren. They talked of meeting in person eventually, maybe during Memorial Day weekend to mark the anniversary of the sisters’ arrival in the United States. Then, they all received an invitation to appear as special guests at CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute, held in New York City in December 2022.
Standing in a hotel lobby in Manhattan, Zugay and Contino hid behind a Christmas tree, wanting to surprise Peck when she arrived. After 23 years, expectations and emotions had built up; there was pressure on the moment to be free from awkwardness and struggle. Zugay was anxious as she waited, and she admitted to her sister, “I don't want to let her down.” Contino assured her, “You are an amazing person. This is all happening because of you.”
Even though the sisters were on the lookout for Peck, Peck caught them by surprise. They excitedly yelled, “Hi!” as they rushed to embrace Peck. Peck hugged them and shouted, “My lovelies!” Her cheeks grew red as tears streamed down her face. “Oh! This is such a blessing,” she said. They hugged each other tighter. The moment was a culmination of many things; a moment full of excitement, love, gratitude, closure, and new beginnings. They later convened in Zugay’s hotel room, pouring over endless memories.
The three women spent their New York trip together, taking in the sights, enjoying the holiday season, and reflecting on their relationships. At CNN Heroes, they got emotional as clips from their Zoom reunion played. They walked on stage, side by side, to a standing ovation.
The weekend was one of reflection and embrace, and Peck thought back again to that flight 23 years ago. “I wouldn't have been nearly as strong as you were. I wouldn't have been mature enough to do it… I'm so proud of you, the two women you've become,” she said. No longer filled with worry about their reunion, Zugay tells Peck, “You turned out to be so much more than I ever expected. Just hearing your voice means so much to me. I can't wait to hear about our future days together.” The women plan on having many more reunions, where their families can meet and continue to grow together. Zugay hopes to have Peck as a guest at her wedding.
Beyond their own relationships, Zugay reflected on how their story has impacted the lives of people everywhere. She’s received many beautiful messages from readers encouraging the women, as well as messages describing the Tracys in their own lives. “It's been really beautiful to be able to elevate the message of welcoming people, and encouraging people to be kind,” Zugay says. “You don't have to be a wealthy philanthropist; you don't have to be somebody who has a lot of power. You can be an average person, and you can have an incredible impact on somebody's life.”
Scroll below to see photos of their heartfelt reunion.
In April 2022, Ayda Zugay asked the internet to help her find a stranger who she met over 20 years ago on a plane.
Can you help us #FindTracy?
She welcomed @aydazugay into the US with an unexpected message in 1999. We'd love to help her decade-long search so she can reunite and thank Tracy in person.
— Refugees International (@RefugeesIntl) April 26, 2022
After CNN and a refugee advocacy organization shared the story, Zugay and her sister Vanja Contino found their answer.
She was on a woman’s tennis trip to France to watch the French Open! She is as lovely as this story! Hope you can meet her!
— susan allen (@jallen_12) April 30, 2022