The brief encounter happened on a flight from Amsterdam to the Twin Cities nearly two decades ago. Two sisters displaced by the war in the former Yugoslavia took their seats next to a woman and her friend, probably Minnesotans.
They talked. The older sister, Vanja Zugay, who was 17, told the women about their childhood and how they fled their home, crossed the border to Hungary and managed to get visas to fly from Budapest to the United States. Ayda Zugay, who was a month shy of turning 12 and spoke no English, helped one of the women with her knitting. That was all she could do.
When they were about to disembark from the plane, one of the women gave Ayda an envelope. She told the sisters not to open it until they were gone.
This gift from strangers on May 31, 1999, has launched Ayda, 19 years later, on a quest to find the women who had a lasting impact on her life, so she can express her gratitude.
Inside the envelope was a note, written in cursive on the stationery of a Holiday Inn Garden Court. “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 & happy one for you — welcome to America — please use this to help you here — : ) a friend from the plane — Tracy ”
Tracy ended the note with the heart symbol.
Also in the envelope was a $100 bill and a piece of jewelry, a pair of dangly gold earrings.
Setting foot in America, Ayda and her sister went to Iowa to join their brother.
Ayda tried to hold on to the envelope with the note through hard times.
“It really meant something important to us,” Ayda said. “After seeing so many bad, bad things, it was a breath of life to be able to see good happening in front of us.”
The $100 was the only money they had for the summer of 1999. They made multiple trips to the grocery store to buy pancakes and Coca-Cola. It was the only thing that seemed familiar to them. Everything else looked strange.
Ayda’s sister would mix the pancake ingredients with water and cook it. They would then put a little salt on the pancake for flavor. They would drink the Coca-Cola so they could feel full.
“We did that pretty much the three months that we were there,” Ayda said. “Sometimes my brother will come once in a while with chicken nuggets. That was probably the only thing we had at the time.”
After three months, they were placed with a host family. Ayda picked up some English. A year later, their parents joined them. One day, the father closed his eyes and pointed to a map. His finger landed on New York. The family moved to Staten Island, with two suitcases and $500.
Amid the constant moves of her family in search of stable housing, the note went missing. “I thought I had lost the envelope and honestly I was very sad,” she said.
Longing to say thank you
She finished high school, and then earned a degree in political science and African studies from Boston University. Now 31 and living in Boston, Ayda speaks four languages and works for a nonprofit organization that helps youth find employment. She hopes to become a lawyer. Vanja, now married, is an anesthesiologist in a private practice in Connecticut.
In 2011, when she graduated from college, Ayda began thinking about her journey to the U.S. and the people who touched her life. The two women on the plane came to her mind.
She started looking for them. She used the little pieces of information she could remember from that day in 1999. That the women played tennis in Paris. She thought the airline was American Airlines. She called hotels in Paris and the airline’s headquarters.
She thinks about the women every Memorial Day, because that was the day she arrived, and Thanksgiving, when people express gratitude.
In late August, when she moved in with her boyfriend in Boston, Ayda looked through the few things she had from her country that she keeps in a little box. Ayda found the envelope. She started to cry.
“I could not believe that it was there,” she said. “I read it and I held it in my hand. I saw the name Tracy and the hotel name on the corner of the envelope.” She thinks someone, probably her father, had written the flight number on the envelope: KLM 655.
She searched for the women on the internet. Called KLM. Posted a message on Reddit. Nothing.
Ayda thinks the women still live in Minnesota, probably a couple of hours from the Twin Cities. All she wants, she said, is to say thank you.
“I want to tell them in full English how much of an impact they had on my sister and I,” Ayda said. “That was our first introduction to America. A generosity of two people who heard our story.”