Two decades ago, sisters Ayda and Vanja Zugay fled war-stricken countries and made their way to the United States. They were seated next a woman who was incredibly kind and changed their lives.
In May 1999, young refugees fled Yugoslavia to escape their country. Ayda, then 12 years old, recalls seeing bombs fall around them as they fled.
The sisters sat together on the plane next to a woman who was open to hearing their stories. The kind passenger gave them an envelope and asked them to keep it closed until they got off the plane.
They were shocked to find $100 and dangle earrings inside. Tracy also left a sweet note and signed it by her first name.
It was a much-needed blessing for the young refugees because they had nothing with them—not even a dollar.
Vanja and Ayda went on to live with their younger brother, who was a college student in Iowa. They used Tracy’s gift to scrape by, eating pancake mix and drinking cola for an entire summer.
23 years later, this moment of kindness would have a profound impact on their lives.
Ayda graduated with honors from Boston University. She now works in Boston’s non-profit sector. Vanja is an anesthesiologist, happily married with two children.
Ayda has been searching for the kind stranger she met on their flight from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Minneapolis for over a decade. She remembered that the woman was carrying a tennis racket, and they talked about playing in Paris.
In an effort to find Tracy, she reached out anonymously to hotels, tour companies, airlines, and journalists. She also sought refugee assistance from refugee organizations.
Many of these organizations posted a video of Ayda sharing the story on Twitter and asked for leads from the public.
CNN eventually covered her story, which 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. The story made sense.
“Knowing Tracy, that is exactly what Tracy would do,” Susan told CNN.
Susan reached out to Deanne Sand Johnson, her coach, to look through their records.
Their search led them to the conclusion that Love / To Travel, a Minnesota company, offered Minnesota women the chance to travel abroad to participate in tennis and watch tournaments.
They flew 18 women, which included Tracy, to Paris in March 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 message to Tracy and Ayda, and the latter suggested a Zoom phone call the next day.
Tracy shared with her siblings that she clearly recalls how she felt when she first 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.”
Ayda, who was previously nervous, felt more confident after the Zoom call.
“You know those huge doors that they have in old places across the world? It felt like a big, heavy door had been closed. 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 that she was the most grateful. She hopes others will be inspired by their story, now that it has gone viral.
“I just want to encourage everybody in the world to just be kind,” she said. “What does it hurt? Except that 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 her daughters, while Tracy introduced her to her granddaughters.
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.
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