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For Women Fleeing Ukraine, Social Media Is a Lifeline

Women-organized Facebook groups have popped up to support the more than 6 million Ukrainian refugees with transportation, accommodations, legal issues, and much more.

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Ella Jarmulska sat in her living room in Prace Małe, Poland, watching the news as Russia attacked nearby Ukraine. Like many, she wanted to help. She started with something simple: a fundraiser at her daughter’s school, which was a success. But still, she wanted to do more. “Watching TV and crying was not enough,” Jarmulska says. “I got in my car and, when asked by my husband ‘where are you going?,’ I simply said, ‘Just to do some shopping,’ and I drove to the nearest border.”

At 9:30 p.m. after a three-and-a-half-hour drive, she arrived in the border town of Dorohusk. There, she found many others, mostly men, gathered at reception offering free transport. She was relieved to see other volunteers willing to help shuttle refugees to safety, but the situation was chaotic and disorganized. “I just raised my hand, showed three fingers to indicate I could take three people, and shouted, ‘Warsaw!’ Jarmulska says. “I immediately had two ladies and a girl catch a ride with me.”

The two women and girl stayed at Jarmulska’s home for a few days because they didn’t have any family in Poland. That’s when the reality of the refugee crisis set in. “If I were to end up in the middle of the night in a foreign country with my child, without knowing the language, while my friends and family are being bombarded, and some guy would offer me and my child a free ride to any place in Poland… I would be terrified to get into a car with an unknown man,” she reflects.

This was the beginning of Kobiety za Kółko (KZK), which translates to “Women Take the Wheel”, a Facebook group dedicated to providing transportation to Ukrainians fleeing from the war. Jarmulskas’ group was quickly joined by similar ones, including Transport a Sister, Host a Sister to Safety, Sunflower Sisters Ukraine/UK, Prawniczki i Prawnicy Ukrainie (Lawyers for Helping Ukraine), and the already established Host a Sister, a group that promotes women’s cultural exchange through free travel hosting and meetups. Formed on Facebook, the female founders organized these groups to help those fleeing Ukraine—mostly women and children—with transportation, safe, immediate, and long-term accommodations, legal advice, and emotional support.

It’s difficult to overstate how important the groups have become during this humanitarian crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has declared the Ukraine situation a Level 3 emergency, the highest level in their system, with over 6.5 million refugees fleeing to neighboring countries since the war began on February 24. Of these, 90 percent are women and children. In addition, they estimate 7 million internally displaced people as of May 22, 2022.

Early on, the UNHCR and various aid agencies issued warnings over the possibility of human traffickers taking advantage of the desperation of these refugees. “What we’re witnessing here is that the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse and of trafficking are significant,” explains Nadia Abu Amr, a UNHCR coordinator for protection of sexual exploitation and abuse. “The vast majority of arrivals have been women and children. It’s a highly mobile population, and there are many actors here on the ground who are stepping in to participate in the response.”

From the beginning, the main focus of the KZK initiative was to provide safety for women and children refugees from Ukraine traveling to Poland and beyond. Being driven by women makes the refugees, who are themselves mostly women and their children, feel safer and lessens the likelihood of them being taken advantage of, explains Jarmulska. It’s important to note that some women from this group drive inside Ukraine to assist in getting people and animals out and bring much-needed medical supplies and food in.

Even before the war, Rashvinda Kaur and Natalie Gomila Cartwright understood the concerns of women travelers, which led to the May 2019 creation of their Facebook group, Host a Sister. “We noticed in other travel groups, women ‘couchsurfers’ complaining about harassment by their male hosts or that they were feeling lonely in cities they were traveling in. We decided to start this group for women only, by women only,” Kaur says.

When the war erupted, group members began posting offers to host their Ukrainian sisters. Within the first month, there were at least 2,000 offers of housing. Their group’s membership ballooned, adding about 100,000 members and currently sits at 275,000, with both offers and requests for hosting continuing to be posted.

The group Transport a Sister formed just after the war began and, according to its founder, Aleksandra Karwowska, the main purpose of this group was, and still is, finding free transport for people who are fleeing Ukraine. She’s careful to clarify her use of the phrase “people who are fleeing Ukraine” instead of the more common, ‘Ukrainians,’ “because our group helps everyone affected by this war, the nationality is unimportant,” she says.

All of these groups are funded through private donations., and most are not official charities or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Many don’t require any budget, as the hosts simply offer free accommodations (though individual countries may offer a stipend for hosts) and drivers pay for their own fuel, sometimes with funds they’ve raised themselves.

While money from fundraising is important and can help offset the costs of transportation or short-term accommodations needed during transit, Karwowska stresses that her group has been set up so that any person from around the world can help refugees directly. “If people want to spend their air miles or are just able to cover the price of the ticket, we’ll put them in contact with the family who needs to travel, and they can get to know each other, making a real connection with someone they’re helping, even if from far away,” Karwowska says.

Transportation isn’t the only immediate need for people fleeing the war. Housing has become one of the most challenging issues for these war refugees. In the first month after the war began, the population of Warsaw, Poland, increased by 17 percent. Refugee centers opened across Europe, in shopping centers, school gyms, convention centers, and train stations. Filled with army cots, these are usually only for one-night stays while transferring to longer-term accommodations and, though appreciated, aren’t very comfortable.

Karwowska says Transport a Sister managed to rent a small flat in Warsaw as a place for  people to stay for a few nights, while they wait for flights, visas, etc. But even after fleeing their home and finding shelter in a new country, finding long-term accommodations is the next hurdle for refugees. Long-term accommodation is the main focus of Sunflower Sisters Ukraine/UK Facebook group. This group connects U.K. residents with those fleeing Ukraine. Members also learn about the sponsorship process and discuss challenges for both hosts and guests.

Jarmulska’s KZK is now also raising money through a GoFundMe campaign to help with the housing situation. “Our new project, the KZK Centre, will be in a building near Warsaw that we plan to adapt for housing women and children from Ukraine,” she says. Immediate and long-term plans include psychological support for trauma and adapting to a new reality, language and driving lessons, computer skills, cultural and business initiatives with the local community, and education for children.

Housing is also the focus of Canadian Melissa Ross’ Facebook group, Host a Sister to Safety. What began as an inactive travel group page turned into an active humanitarian page when Ross changed the name and focus. As Ross says, “the focus of my group is safe housing for women, from women.” The 5,600 members from Ukraine, Europe, the U.S., and Canada connect directly through her page to both offer and find safe housing.

Ross knew her efforts were paying off when Maria, a Ukrainian member of the group, posted her story documenting the assistance she received from another group member. After spending some time at the beginning of the war in a Soviet-era bomb shelter, Maria, her mother, and her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter fled to Poland. It was a rough trip on an unscheduled train—only allowing women, children, and the elderly—to an unknown future. So many were packed in, that many slept on compartment floors and in bathrooms. On their arrival in Poland, they were given warm meals and supplies and were offered beds at a refugee center. Concerned for her daughter, she asked about hotels, even if there was a cost; they were all full. She found temporary housing through a volunteer at the refugee center and, over the next week, as the situation worsened and the numbers of refugees in Poland increased, Maria knew she had to move on. That’s when she connected with Leigh in Germany via Host a Sister to Safety on Facebook. After some chats, Leigh found a comfortable place for Maria and her family with Lara, a woman in Heide, Germany. With a train stopover in Berlin, Maria was overwhelmed by the vast Berlin Central Station. With people crying, people sleeping on mattresses, volunteers and lines everywhere, “I was very confused and scared at first, especially when the volunteer said that there were cases when refugees were offered money and housing, and then the children were taken to the black market,” Maria says. “I doubted whether it was worth going further. I called Lara and heard that she was excited and, for her, it was just as unusual as [it was] for us, so I decided to continue [with the plan].”

Even with Europe opening its doors to Ukrainians, there are other issues to navigate, and many of these involve legal questions. That’s where the Facebook Group, Prawniczki i Prawnicy Ukrainie (Lawyers for Ukraine) comes in. Though only able to advise clients in Poland, it’s much needed, as this is where the highest concentration of Ukrainian refugees landed. One of the founding members of the group, Martyna Majewska, explains the group’s origins. “Our group was established on February 24, 2022, the same day the Russian aggression started. We just knew we’d have refugees on our Eastern border soon, and they will need our help. Our main goal is to provide Ukrainians fleeing from their country with accurate, free-of-charge legal aid. We instantly created a network of lawyers from all over the country, sworn translators, and notary publics to be ready immediately. And immediately we started to have people asking for help.”

All work is done pro bono, assisting Ukrainians with applications for needed documents, placements at schools for children, social aid, and providing standardized lease agreements. Other services are offered on an individual basis. The group isn’t limited to Polish attorneys and Ukrainians needing legal advice. “After the first month, we noticed that in our group there are also Ukrainian lawyers who help when information based on Ukrainian law is necessary. I also contact our colleagues from Ukraine when I need to verify some information or documents,” Majewska says.

While Facebook has become known for spreading discourse and misinformation, these women and the groups they’ve formed on the platform show us that, in the right hands, it can be a lifesaving tool. “Without Facebook, it wouldn’t have happened,” Majewska says. “Since it is one of the biggest social media platforms, we had an easier task to reach those who need help and connect them with those who provide help.”

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