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  • As of Tuesday, the UN Refugee Agency estimates roughly 660,000 refugees have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries over the past six days.
  • Everyday people across the world are opening up their hearts and homes to refugees who are reaching out for help on social media.
  • “Even if it was just with their words: ‘Iryna, we are here. Tell me what you need,’ … I felt myself not so alone,” one Ukrainian mom told USA TODAY.

Iryna Yarmalenko woke up to the sound of rockets outside Kyiv Thursday and knew she had to get her 5-year-old son and mom to safety.

“I hadn’t any plan,” she said. “I just grabbed my family and very quickly went to the border by my car. … It saved our lives.”

They spent 12 hours at the border, waiting to cross into Poland as Russia invaded. While waiting, one of Yarmalenko’s colleagues told her about Host a Sister, one of several Facebook groups helping Ukrainians find places to stay abroad.

As neighboring countries opened their borders, everyday people across the world are opening up their hearts and homes to Ukrainian refugees. Online groups are making it possible for them to connect.

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Host a Sister started in 2019 as a safe space for female travelers to meet, share cultures, and find or offer free places to stay, but it’s evolved into a community of women helping each other, whether they’re new in town or alone at the holidays. While group membership is limited to women and people who are non-binary, some members also host families.

“It’s as simple as giving someone a safe roof (over) their head,” the group’s founder told USA TODAY. Her name is being withheld because she’s have received threats amid the group’s efforts to shelter refugees.

Members previously mobilized to help host Australians forced out of their homes by wildfires. As Russia invaded Ukraine, the group’s founder said the Host a Sister page was flooded with messages and member requests saying, “Oh my God, Ukraine needs our help.”

More than 30,000 people have joined Host a Sister in the past week, including women fleeing Ukraine and good Samaritans offering places to stay, provisions and flights abroad. The group is just one of many offering resources to refugees.

‘Just open your doors’

“I offered immediate accommodation at my parents’ place,” said Natalia Szulczewska, a member of Host a Sister, who started the group Transport a Sister specifically to help refugees from Ukraine.

Her hometown in Poland is less than 100 miles from the border.

“We share a lot of history with Ukraine, like the western part of Ukraine used to be Polish … so we really wanted to help our neighbors facing what we faced, basically, not so long ago, during the first and second world war. I still remember my grandparents’ stories about how they helped Jewish people during (World War II) … so that was the immediate reaction. I wanted to do the same. I wanted to help.”

Szulczewska has been traveling the world the past few years and is currently in France, but that hasn’t stopped her from working around the clock to connect refugees with resources and contacts back home.

She says her parents were glad to take in a Ukrainian family, and she encourages others to “just open your doors.”

“I’m filled with gratitude and I’m so proud of all these amazing women coming together to help,” Host a Sister’s founder said, also encouraging others to reach out. “It has been overwhelming and sad to read some of the posts, to feel helpless being far away but seeing how some women and children are already receiving help and shelter makes me happy that there is a platform such as Host A Sister for people faraway to help however they can.”

Dessi Tosheva of Bulgaria created a similar account Friday after learning of the Russian invasion. As of Tuesday morning, the account has more than 14,000 members.

Like Host a Sister, the Accommodation, Help & Shelter for Ukraine Facebook group is full of people across the globe offering Ukrainian refugees a temporary home. Tosheva estimates that she’s invested 17 hours a day to the group since it launched, sacrificing sleep to try to organize shelter for refugees. 

“This group is still not as big as the other ones, but I am absolutely thrilled from all of the willingness that I have seen there and the help that everyone is offering,” she said. “I hope that we continue to reach more people. I hope that this issue gets resolved as fast as possible.”

Tosheva listed off just some of the refugees the group was working to assist, a plan for each outlined in a heavy black binder: A 12-year-old boy trapped in Chernihiv, Ukraine, with his grandfather. Three refugees looking for a place to stay in Prague. A group of about 500 students from Sumy making their way toward Romania.  

“Now is the time for people to continue to help refugees and, more importantly, for diplomats to do their best to ensure that there will not be any more refugees in the time to come,” she said.

Mothers connecting across borders

Lily Yashchuk of Lviv was able to get herself and her 5-month-old daughter, Solomia, out of Ukraine with the help of Agata Bialas, a Polish woman she connected with on a Polish Facebook group

“If she would have been alone, or she would have been just with her husband without the daughter, she would want to stay and she would want to help,” said Bialas, who helped translate an interview with Yashchuk. “But the next day, when the sirens started, that’s the moment … they decided it was best for her child to escape.”

After a 12-hour journey – five of which were stuck on a stalled train with no air conditioning, according to Yashchuk – Bialas’ brother-in-law picked up the two in Warsaw. Yashchuk and her daughter are now living in an apartment Bialas set up with help from a friend.

Yashchuk’s husband remains in Ukraine, working as a cook for soldiers. Men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country under martial law.

“No one believed or imagined it would happen until the last moment,” Yashchuk said with tears in her eyes. Bialas rubbed her arm reassuringly. “No one thought it was really possible that a country invades this way in the 21st century.”

Bialas, who is also in her early 30s, said lending a hand was an easy decision. 

“We treat Ukraine as our neighbors. It was a shock for everyone in Poland what happened,” she said. “We just knew that we wanted to help them. I saw the post – I have two kids myself, so couldn’t imagine the situation. I’m very, very, very happy that we got a chance to meet.”

“Me too,” Yashchuk added.

‘There’s just a lot of suffering that’s going to happen’

Iryna Yarmolenko got hundreds of responses after posting on Host a Sister’s page looking for help and found a safe place for her family to stay with a couple in Lublin, Poland.

“Even if it was just with their words: ‘Iryna, we are here. Tell me what you need,’ … I felt myself not so alone.” she said. “I was totally broken because I left all my stuff, all my dreams, all my house, all my career, all my everything.” 

Yarmolenko served as a council member for the city of Bucha, where she worked on issues like equal rights and climate change. She also previously served her hometown of Zhytomyr. Suddenly, she’s a refugee.

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Kayra Martinez, an American who had been volunteering with refugees in Europe for the past seven years, knows it will be a long road ahead.

“My heart sank,” she said when she heard of Russia’s invasion. “There’s just a lot of suffering that’s going to happen, and it’s unnecessary.”

Martinez founded the group Love Without Borders for Refugees in Need, which helps refugees in Greece express and financially support themselves through art while educating others about the refugee experience. 

“I know a lot of the families that we’re supporting now, they’ve been waiting for several years, and they still don’t have passports to go to another European country,” she said.

Story continues below.

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Payton, USA TODAY

Many still trying to escape Ukraine

Maryna Kryvokhyzha, 33, is one of many who remain in Ukraine, despite looking for a way out in the early days of the invasion. 

“I want to try to leave today, but I don’t know how yet,” she said in a Thursday post on Host a Sister’s page, asking if anyone would be able to pick her up since she had no car of her own.

But plans didn’t work out. Kryvokhyzha said it’s too unsafe to make an attempt to reach the border now, so she remains in her apartment in Kyiv, messaging friends about the situation and making Molotov cocktails with neighbors. 

“I’m so nervous,” she said. “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. … It’s really stressful. I hope it will be finished.” 

For Ukrainian families still trying to flee, Host a Sister’s founder wants them to know “There’s so many hosts out there and they’re waiting” to welcome them.

Szulczewska said refugees shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. “We are in this together,” she said.  

Kayra Martinez wants them to know, “they’re not alone, that (there are) millions of people that are supporting them. And we’re going to do our best to have avenues for them for a safe place to take care of their children and to help them in this time.”

“Displacement can happen to anybody so I think it’s just really important that everybody does something small,” she said. “Whether it’s donating to an organization locally to help people out or to offer their home for a family that’s displaced, everybody can do a little bit.”

Which countries are accepting Ukrainian refugees?

A number of nations are accepting Ukrainian refugees, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Germany. As of Tuesday, the UN Refugee Agency estimates roughly 660,000 refugees have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries over the past six days.  

Ukrainian nationals who hold a biometric passport can access EU countries for up to 90 days in any 180 day period, according to a spokesperson for the European Union Agency for Asylum.  

Yarmolenko doesn’t know how long she’ll have to stay abroad with her family.

“Three days, three weeks, three months or three years, I don’t know what is going to happen to this world,” she said, noting that with allies involved, the invasion doesn’t just impact Russia and Ukraine. In the meantime, she worries for loved ones back home. “I’m very scared about my people.”

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