Katya Nesteruk and Yulia Koval did not know each other well before the first missiles hit their hometown of Brovary, near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
But weeks later, on March 9, they stood together at the main train station in Krakow with nowhere to go, their two small children at their sides, their lives already intertwined.
Suddenly, a dark-haired woman appeared out of nowhere.
“Do you have a plan?” Magdalena Petersen asked. “Do you want to stay with me for a few days?”
Since the war in Ukraine began, most refugees have fled to Poland – about 2.3 million people so far.
Some found shelter in the dormitories organised by activists in Polish cities, while others have relied on the help of ordinary citizens, who have opened their homes to strangers fleeing war.
February 24 was Nesteruk’s husband’s birthday, but the couple did not celebrate. On that day, the first Russian rockets hit Brovary, close to their home. It felt like thunder, Nesteruk said.
They packed their bags in haste and left to join their relatives in western Ukraine.
“I thought that it would end after two weeks but it only got worse,” Nesteruk said. “We wanted to stay in Ukraine, but there is no safe place, no one knows where the missiles will fall. It’s impossible to sleep, everything is trembling, and you just sit and wait for the sirens.”
Nesteruk’s and Koval’s husbands, who are friends, advised the pair to leave together. They went to Slovakia and then Poland. When Petersen approached them at the train station, they could barely stand.
“At that time there was no more space for refugees in Krakow. I don’t have a separate flat but I prepared a room in my apartment and so did my Afghan neighbours, who were evacuated from Kabul last August,” Petersen said.
The women stayed with the Afghan family at first, but over the weeks, they have been staying with Petersen, too.
In the end, her friend, who currently lives in Germany, agreed that the two women and their children could stay in his place, right next to Petersen’s.
“I work in HR so I have no problem communicating with people from different environments and cultures. I like to travel, I have been to many countries, and I know that people everywhere are helpful and friendly,” said Petersen, who previously hosted African students fleeing Ukraine.
“I had situations abroad when I couldn’t find a hotel and local people would always host me in their homes. I didn’t want the kids to sleep on the floor at the train station. When you talk to people, get to know them, it’s easier to accept them at your home.”
Petersen’s twins and Yulia’s daughter are all seven. They play together and communicate well despite the language barrier. There is not much of a cultural difference between them.