Two young sisters fleeing civil war in Yugoslavia board a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. Next to them sits a Minnesota woman returning home from the French Open in Paris. It’s May 1999.
Unable to speak the same language, the three strike up a pantomime conversation. The sisters, 11 and 17, tell the woman of having to leave their parents, escaping as bombs fell in their worn-torn country. They bond around their shared love of knitting.
When the flight lands, the woman hands the girls an envelope with a handwritten note and $100. She melts into the Twin Cities airport crowd, but the girls can’t forget her kindness.
Tracy Peck altered the trajectory for Ayda Zugay and Vanja Contino that day. Twenty-three years later, they found her.
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“When the sisters pictures popped up on the Zoom video I just went crazy,” Peck told MPR News host Tom Crann of the recent reunion. “I was like ‘Hi, pretty ladies!’ It was so wonderful to see both of their beautiful faces and finally put us together again after 23 years.”
Zugay felt the same. She said she had been waiting for this moment for a long time.
“I just loved hearing Tracy’s voice and knowing it was her,” Zugay said. “It was so overwhelming to know I was going to be meeting with this person who inspired us and helped us survive that entire summer.”
When the sisters landed in Minneapolis they said they went from waiting in line for food rations to walking into an enormous American grocery store with $100. They bought two things they knew — bottles of Coca-Cola and pancake mix.
“We pretty much spent the entire summer eating pancakes and drinking Coca-Cola until we were placed with a host family in Iowa,” she said.
Zugay began looking for Peck eight years later, posting an anonymous Reddit thread asking for help. She said she remembered the woman sitting next to her sister and her and would never forget the act of generosity that welcomed them to the United States.
While the Reddit post was a dead end, Zugay kept searching for Peck and 15 years after that, they were reunited because of Peck’s recognizable handwriting and a video Zugay posted with Refugees International.
Zugay had shared a photo of the 1999 note on Twitter and one of Peck’s daughters reached out confirming the match. A friend of Peck’s found her scrapbook documenting their 1999 trip to Paris to watch the French Tennis Open and on the ticket it was confirmed, they had all been on the same flight.
Zugay and Contino could not read the letter at the time, but Peck wrote, “I hope your stay in America will be a safe and happy one for you.” When they did learn English and went back to the letter years later, Zugay said the word “safe” stuck with her the most.
Peck’s generosity stuck with Zugay as she now works in the nonprofit sector and said she wants to pay the kindness forward.
For Peck, she says her family has now gotten even bigger.
“I am so thankful they are in my life now because I have three beautiful children and two step-sons and now I have two additional, wonderful girls in my life who will become like daughters. That is the gift kindness can give you.”