“We gotta help somehow”: How a network for women travelers evolved into a refugee operation for Ukrainians

The Facebook group Host a Sister was originally intended to link solo travelers to safe lodging. It’s become so much more.

Screenshots/Twitter/Host a Sister
The Power Of The Internet

On Feb. 24, Rashvinda Kaur opened the Facebook page for Host a Sister, a travel group she started in 2019 to link tourists in need of housing in their destination cities to potential hosts. But instead of the usual posts requesting a three-day stay in Paris, Kaur logged on that Thursday to find women opening their spare rooms and couches to Ukrainian refugees.

“First thing I do when I wake up is look at the group, and there it was: Over 100 posts pending approval — all mentioning where and how they were willing to help Ukrainians,” Kaur tells Mic. “I didn’t even know about the war yet.”

Kaur originally launched Host a Sister as a women’s-only network for solo travelers who had been harassed — and in some cases, assaulted — by men in couchsurfing groups. She didn’t exactly set out for it to evolve into a refugee network, but she’s not surprised it did. Even without the urgent nature of COVID or a climate disaster, thousands of women were always ready to open their homes to strangers who spoke different languages or practiced different religions. At the start of the pandemic, the group helped arrange emergency travel for health care workers; in 2021, they helped victims of the Australian bushfires find shelter. Whether it’s a handsy host or a president abusing his power, women banding together to fight against society’s ills fits the group’s mission.

To date, thousands of connections have been made through Kaur’s platform. And in the last two months, that includes coordinating life-saving travel for refugees fleeing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.N. estimates that over 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country since war broke out. In that time, Host a Sister has gained over 100,000 new members, Kaur says, bringing the tally to 267,000. Now, Kaur and a group of volunteer moderators sift through over 500 posts a day, some of which go viral, like the story of Valeria Moroz.

Moroz is a 24-year-old who was working in Kyiv up until Putin’s imperialism started threatening Ukraine’s capital city. She had been pushed out of her home once already: She was living in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk when Russia attacked in 2014. After that, she relocated west to Bucha and commuted to work in Kyiv. Now, she’s a refugee once again.

Valeria Moroz with her mother, her two sisters, and Natalia Mączka’s parents.

Courtesy of Valeria Moroz

“When I woke up on [Feb. 24], my dad told [my mom and me] he heard bombs. I didn't want to believe it, so I opened the window and heard the rockets,” Moroz tells Mic. “My mom told me we would leave immediately.” She and her mother gathered their documents and packed light, thinking things would quiet down in a week, maybe a month. The two women, along with Moroz’s sister and a family friend, all piled into a car and headed for the Polish border — joining a mass exodus that left them in gridlock traffic for 25 hours.

Once they arrived in Poland, though, they had to figure out where to stay. Moroz texted friends and posted online seeking assistance. Multiple people recommended she try Host a Sister. Upon joining the group, Moroz went through Host a Sister’s vetting process — Kaur checks for legit-seeming photos, a reasonable amount of friends, and other signs that the person asking for help is who they say they are. Once she was approved, Moroz posted a guest request and was soon matched with a woman named Natalia Mączka.

There was just one hitch: While Mączka is originally from Poland, she now lives in the French Alps. But without any hesitation, she offered up her parents’ home in Sandomierz instead, which is about 90 miles from the border with Ukraine. “My parents found out two hours before Valeria and her family arrived,” Mączka tells Mic. “I just called and told them, ‘Hey, there are four people coming your way. Prepare some food and three rooms.’” Mączka’s parents shared their four-bedroom home for four days, until Moroz’s group trekked to Warsaw to stay in a co-worker’s apartment.

Counting Moroz, Kaur estimates that her group has matched more than 100 refugees with hosts. Amid the flood of post requests, HAS member Jennifer Bentley created a spreadsheet to organize the information, such as contact info and location, of everyone available to host a refugee.

The makeshift system was better than nothing, but safety concerns arose when well-intentioned members began screenshotting and sharing the information with other groups. Bentley has since upgraded this spreadsheet to the Seeking Sanctuary Network (SSN) — a full-fledged rapid response organization that centralizes refugee requests so sensitive info doesn’t find its way to the shadier corners of Facebook. Host a Sister has since restricted all commenting on posts related to Ukraine and redirects potential hosts to the SSN. Kaur, Bentley, and their respective teams of volunteers currently host multiple Zoom calls a week to stay updated on pending cases and recent wins.

Of course, those wins can only happen if someone is able to safely flee from Ukraine to a host’s country, which poses its own set of challenges. Constantly shifting battle lines have left nearly 6.5 million Ukrainians displaced within the country, and a lack of funds, gas, and other resources has prevented them from finding a way out. That’s why Mączka pushed her goodwill even further by creating Transport a Sister (TAS), a Facebook group separate from HAS that’s dedicated to fundraising and booking travel for refugees.

“I saw a picture on the internet of the cars from Kyiv going towards Poland, so I immediately thought, ‘We gotta help somehow,’” Mączka explains. It’s now become her second job; when she’s not working her day job in IT, she’s coordinating itineraries, tracking down donations, and updating the group with success stories along the way. Counting 13,800 members, Transport a Sister has raised over $54,000 for transport fees.

Irynka Petrus, a 33-year-old mother, first heard of TAS from a medic friend while escaping the warzone. Petrus didn’t have an exit strategy planned because, like many civilians, she never held stock in the idea that Russia would actually launch an assault. Then she woke up to soldiers bombing the nearby Lviv airport and her husband saying, “You have to run away. Take the baby and go.”

Irynka Petrus with her daughter, her friend Alena, and Alena’s son and mother at the airport. They were en route to Mexico.

Courtesy of Irynka Petrus

Petrus joined another mother, Alena, who was staying with her and her husband in Lviv at the time. They each packed up their children (Petrus’s 4-year-old and her friend’s 6-year-old) and, along with Alena’s mother, headed for the Polish border. They’d originally thought of heading to Kyiv, a notion that was quickly dispelled by news that Kyiv had been targeted by Russian bombing. The drive to Poland took 30 hours, when it would usually only take one.

They found a place to stay in Warsaw with a family friend. The endgame was a flight out of Europe, but that required money they didn’t have. So, Petrus described their situation in the TAS Facebook group. Within three days, the group had been offered roughly $3800 to put towards five flights to Mexico. (Petrus’s group also used $1,300 of their own money to cover the remaining fees.) Her original post was marked as “SOLVED” — just like the posts of over 100 other families who have turned to Transport a Sister as a lifeline.

A year ago, Mączka didn’t expect any of this — not the invasion of Ukraine, or hosting refugees in her parents’ home, or that she’d become a de facto crisis worker. She’d met up with some girls from Host a Sister for a trip abroad before, but taking inspiration from Kaur to found her own Facebook page for wartime aid? That wasn’t in the plans. Just like it wasn’t originally in Kaur’s plans for her wanderlust-indulging travel group to spawn grassroots aid efforts like TAS and SSN.

But in hindsight, it all seems inevitable. At its roots, humanitarian aid is humans helping humans. And whether that’s inviting a guest into your Balinese home for cultural exchange or matching displaced residents with spare rooms, a helping hand is a helping hand — and Host a Sister has plenty of those.