Trending

How Facebook couchsurfing groups became an essential tool for Ukrainians fleeing to Poland

Business Insider US
People fleeing from Ukraine are seen after crossing Ukrainian-Polish border. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
People fleeing from Ukraine are seen after crossing Ukrainian-Polish border. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • The Host a Sister Facebook group boasts 250,000 members and helps women travellers find safe housing.
  • Since the onset of the war its members have been organising to help resettle Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
  • But its moderators worry that refugees using the platform might be exposing themselves to privacy risks.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

When the Russian army invaded Ukraine last month, Iryna Yarmolenko, a 30-year-old real-estate professional, was in Irpin, Ukraine, on a business trip — around eight kilometres away from Kyiv. It was 5am, and the sound of Russian bombs reverberated throughout the city.

Yarmolenko swiftly returned to her house to pick up her son and mother. By daybreak, she had thrown their travel documents, money, and athletic clothes into a bag — leaving everything else behind as they made their way to the Poland border.

Within the next few days, Yarmolenko would receive word that blasts had destroyed both her office and apartment building. Even the hospital where she gave birth to her son Kyryl had come to ruins.

"Every day, it was difficult," she said. "We cried so much — but what can we do? It's the war." 

Due to massive lines and traffic, it took them 12 hours to cross the border. While Yarmolenko waited in line at border control, she met a 16-year-old boy who asked if he could catch a ride with her and her family — she said yes.

In Poland, the family had no concrete plans. Knowing Yarmolenko would need help with housing, one of her friends from France suggested she join a Facebook group called "Host A Sister," which helps women travellers find housing. Exhausted from the arduous journey, Yarmolenko immediately posted in the group, asking if anyone was able to host.  Within a couple of hours, hundreds of strangers responded.

"It was crazy because we had 3,000 reactions, 500 comments, and 100 private messages," Yarmolenko said. "I realised, at that moment, that I'm not alone."

Host a Sister is becoming a go-to Facebook Group for Ukrainians finding homes in Poland

The "Host a Sister" Facebook group — with nearly 250,000 members — was created in May 2019 to help women backpackers and tourists find safe, temporary housing. But in light of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, hundreds — from cities like La Spezia, Italy to Charleston, South Carolina — have used the group to help displaced Ukrainians.  

In the past week alone, the group saw 21,477 new members and 2,467 posts, with a multitude of users offering food, clothing, accommodations, and even plane tickets.

"At first, I felt very overwhelmed because we had a lot of moderating work to be done," the group's founder Rashvinda Kaur said of the current situation. "Now I feel very happy, very proud, and very grateful for all the kindness and for all the good, happy stories that have come out of it."

But for people like Yarmolenko, groups like "Host a Sister" have become a lifeline, providing access to essential information as they look for food and shelter. Emre Korkmaz, a lecturer in migration studies and researcher at the University of Oxford, believes that information is just as critical as shelter and food.

"It is not just about the physical obstacles and borders [refugees and migrants] must overcome. They also need digital infrastructure to receive vital information for the journey and, once they arrive, to integrate into the host society," he said.

To accommodate Ukrainians turning to the platform for critical information, Facebook has also made site-wide changes. Leonard Lam, a spokesperson for Facebook's parent company Meta, said they updated the Community Help page, which serves as a central resource for Ukrainians and others in the region looking for accurate information.

"Throughout this invasion, we've seen people across the world use our tools to make their voices heard and support each other, including Facebook Groups," Lam said. "We've seen people come together to provide a range of support for refugees, from housing, clothing, and medication, to pro bono legal help for those escaping the conflict."

Some moderators worry that using the group could compromise a refugee security

But as more people turn to "Host a Sister," the group's moderators note that the platform may also compromise refugees' safety. To prevent sensitive information from being leaked, moderators started locking comments on posts related to Ukrainian refugees, encouraging members to reach out in private.

"We still approve all the posts; we just want to make sure conversations are happening in private rather than all 250,000 people seeing very sensitive information," Kaur said.

"There's light and darkness — there's always good and bad," Marina Shepelsky, a Jewish-Ukrainian immigration lawyer based in New York City, said.

As refugees continue to use platforms like Facebook, Shepelsky, a social media advocate herself, said she finds a majority of the conversations encouraging.

"I think these situations often show us what's good out there," she said. "To see this much outpouring of love from our community from the world, I never expected it."

As Yarmolenko makes herself at home amongst new friends in Warsaw, Poland, she's already working hard to help incoming refugees, adding that now is her chance to give back.

"I realised that I have no time being frustrated or stressed. I need to help people who are by the border and people who are locked in cities," she said. "We are so small, but we are such a brave country. We watch movies about superheroes, but I think our army soldiers are superheroes."

Receive a daily news update on your cellphone. Or get the best of our site emailed to you

Go to the Business Insider front page for more stories.

Rand - Dollar
16.59
-1.4%
Rand - Pound
19.75
+0.2%
Rand - Euro
16.99
+0.3%
Rand - Aus dollar
11.23
-0.1%
Rand - Yen
0.12
-1.3%
Gold
1,772.99
-2.0%
Silver
19.37
-3.1%
Palladium
1,925.00
-0.5%
Platinum
860.50
-3.0%
Brent Crude
113.50
+1.7%
Top 40
58,953
-3.2%
All Share
65,006
-3.0%
Resource 10
59,416
-6.6%
Industrial 25
80,333
-1.1%
Financial 15
14,357
-3.2%
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo