In 1999, Ayda Zugay and her sister Vanja Contino fled their war-torn country of Yugoslavia, seeking refuge in the United States. On their flight to the US, a stranger named Tracy gave them an envelope containing $100 and a note welcoming them to America. This act of kindness changed their lives, and for more than 23 years, Ayda had been searching for Tracy to thank her.
Last spring, CNN featured Ayda’s quest to find Tracy, and the story reached millions of readers. Many people sent in tips to help with the search, and several recognized Tracy’s handwriting on the envelope. Tracy Peck, from Blaine, Minnesota, was the woman behind the act of generosity.
Vanja (left) and her sister Ayda, 1999. Image Credit
Ayda and Vanja reconnected with Tracy in an emotional Zoom call, but they hadn’t had a chance to meet in person until they received an invitation to appear as special guests on “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” in New York City.
As they waited for Tracy to arrive, Ayda was anxious and emotional. She worried that the moment wouldn’t feel right, that they would struggle to connect, or that Tracy would be disappointed in her. But her sister Vanja reassured her that she could never be a disappointment and reminded her that this was all happening because of her.
When Tracy finally arrived, the sisters hid behind a Christmas tree covered in gleaming gold ornaments, hoping to surprise her. Even though they knew she was coming, Tracy caught them off guard. The sisters rushed forward to wrap their arms around her, and they shared a tearful embrace.
To Tracy, the hug felt like an embrace from family members she had known for years. For Vanja, it was an amazing connection between the past and the present that she never imagined would be possible. For Ayda, it was a moment of closure and a moment of something new that was just beginning.
A few minutes later, Ayda and Tracy settled down on the couch in Ayda’s hotel room while Vanja took photos and took in the scene. They exchanged some texts and messages on social media since their virtual meetup in the spring. When Ayda got engaged several months ago, she texted Tracy to tell her. But there was so much more to catch up on and share.
The last time these three women sat side by side, they were in very different places, even though they were flying to the same destination. On May 31, 1999, Tracy was in her late 40s and had just finished a dream vacation watching the French Open with friends. Vanja, then 17, and Ayda, then nearly 12, had just said goodbye to their parents and everything they knew as they fled their war-torn country.
Ayda didn’t speak much English then, but she sensed the compassion in Tracy’s voice. “We were able to communicate even though we had so many differences,” she says.
After hearing the sisters’ story, Tracy handed them an envelope at the end of the flight, telling them to wait until they got off the plane to open it. Inside she tucked a $100 bill and the dangly earrings she’d been wearing. Her note on the outside of the envelope began, “To the girls from Yugoslavia – 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 — Tracy.”
Tracy’s act of kindness had a profound impact on Ayda and Vanja. It gave them hope, courage, and a sense of belonging in their new home. Ayda has been searching for Tracy Peck for over 20 years. She wanted to thank her for her kindness and generosity, and to let her know how much her act of compassion meant to her and her sister. After CNN featured her story, she received an outpouring of support and tips from people around the world who wanted to help her find Peck.
The story of Ayda Zugay, Vanja Contino, and Tracy Peck is a reminder of the power of kindness and the impact that even small acts of compassion can have. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world and to think that our actions don’t matter. But every act of kindness, no matter how small, has the potential to make a difference. The $100 that Tracy Peck gave to Ayda Zugay and Vanja Contino may have seemed like a small gift at the time, but it changed the course of their lives and set them on a path of hope and possibility.