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Former refugee finds mystery woman who gave her $100 on a plane decades ago after years-long search

Over two decades ago, sisters Ayda Zugay and Vanja Contino fled their war-stricken country and traveled to the United States. On the plane, they sat next to a woman who performed an incredibly kind act that changed their lives.

In May 1999, the young refugees were escaping their country, Yugoslavia. Ayda, who was then 12 years old, remembers bombs falling all around them as they were leaving.

On the plane, the sisters sat next to a woman who listened to their story. The kind passenger handed them an envelope but asked them not to open it until they got off the aircraft.

Once they did, they were surprised to see dangle earrings and $100 inside. Tracy also left them a sweet note and signed it with her first name.

It was a much-needed blessing for the young refugees because they had nothing with them—not even a dollar.

Ayda and Vanja went on to live with their brother, a college student in Iowa. They used Tracy’s gift to scrape by, eating pancake mix and drinking cola for an entire summer.

Fast forward to 23 years later, that particular moment of kindness shaped how their lives would turn out.

Ayda graduated from Boston University and now works in the non-profit field in Boston. Vanja is an anesthesiologist and is happily married with two kids.

For the last decade, Ayda has searched for the kind stranger they met on their flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. She recalled that the woman had been carrying a tennis racket and talked about playing in Paris.

Hoping to find Tracy, she had reached out to hotels, tour companies, and airlines, posted anonymously on Reddit, talked with reporters, and sought help from refugee organizations.

Many of those organizations posted a video of Ayda sharing her story on Twitter and asked the public to contact them with any leads.

Tracy Peck's 1999 note for Ayda Zugay and Vanja Contino

Photo by Ayda Zugay

Eventually, CNN covered her story, and it quickly circulated online.

Ayda first saw a tweet from one of Tracy’s daughters saying that the handwriting on the note matched her mom’s.

Next, Tracy’s tennis coach, Susan Allen, reached out after also recognizing Tracy’s penmanship. More than that, the story just made sense.

“Knowing Tracy, that is exactly what Tracy would do,” Susan told CNN.

Susan then reached out to her fellow coach, Deanne Sand Johnson, to scour their records.

Their search confirmed that in May 1999, their company, Love / To Travel, gave Minnesota women a chance to travel abroad to play tennis and watch tournaments.

They flew a group of 18 women, including Tracy, to Paris that month to witness the French Open.

Deanne kept a scrapbook documenting their trip, including a receipt from a travel agency with the group’s itinerary. It showed that the second leg of their journey was a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis on May 31, 1999—the same date and route that Ayda and Vanja recalled flying.

Susan created a group text putting Tracy and Ayda in touch, and the latter suggested a Zoom call the next day.

Tracy told the siblings that she clearly remembers what she felt when she met them.

“It just touched my heart so much that I just felt compelled that I had to help you in some way,” she said.

Vanja, who now lives in Connecticut, told her: “Your generosity is still in me because I’ve been paying it forward ever since.”

After their Zoom call, the previously nervous Ayda felt stronger.

“You know those huge doors that they have in old places across the world? It felt like that big, heavy door just got shut. And I’m finally able to move forward and thrive. … And it just makes me so happy,” she said. “Thank you for reminding me to be strong.”

Tracy said she was the grateful one. Now that their story has gone viral, she hopes that it inspires others to give back.

“I just want to encourage everybody in the world to just be kind,” she said. “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.”

Vanja introduced Tracy to her daughters during the call, while the latter introduced one of her daughters and two of her grandkids.

The trio intends to meet in person someday, including a plan to spend a Memorial Day weekend together, which marks the anniversary of the sisters’ arrival in the United States.

Click on the video below for more on this story.

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