Ukraine Take Shelter gives thousands of new homes to refugees. It was built by a 19-year-old Harvard student

A A Harvard University student connects Ukrainian refugees fleeing their homes in the war-torn country with people offering spare rooms or a couch to sleep in their homes anywhere in the world.

Avi Schiffmann, a 19-year-old neurophilosophy student, spoke to the The Independent last month on how he and his classmate Marco Burnstein, 18, started the website Ukraine To protect to help the more than two million Ukrainians who have so far escaped Russia’s attack as they desperately try to find temporary accommodation.

“I realized that the tools available to help refugees find housing were really poor,” he said.

“Many of these refugees are fleeing on foot amid explosions and shelling. They are stressed, confused and scared and they find themselves in new countries where they don’t understand the language.

“And then they are expected to go to a government website full of jargon and nonsense and wait to be matched with a place to stay.”

In the five weeks since Russia declared war, people from countries around the world have stepped up to support the people of Ukraine, donating items and sending funds.

Many have offered to take refugees into their homes, but social media accounts have revealed frustrations over their ability to turn those offers into realities.

In Ukraine Take Shelter’s launch month, thousands of people from “almost every country on the planet” have now posted ads offering entire houses, annexes, rooms and even sofas in their homes for Ukrainian refugees can stay.

As of March 11, a week after the site launched, there were 5,000 active listings on the website — not including about 300 that hosts deleted after their spaces were filled, Schiffmann said.

“For example, there were dozens of places in Hungary last night, but this morning there were almost none left,” he said.

Less than a month later, more than 18,000 hosts had registered with the site, which had around 800,000 users, said Messrs. Schiffmann and Burnstein to The Associated Press in an article published April 5.

Many announcements are in European countries close to Ukraine, but offers have also come from hosts as far away as Israel, Canada and the United States, as some refugees attempt to reach countries where they have close ties.

A retired Polish couple offers to house three people in their home

(Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein)

“People are offering everything from a couch in their apartment for one person to an entire farmhouse that can accommodate five families,” Schiffmann said. The Independent last month.

“If you have an extra couch at home in a small village in Hungary, you can jump on the website and post a list, then refugees can contact you.”

A quick search of the website revealed the likes of a long-term listing offering a three bedroom home in downtown Ottawa for a family with children and a one bedroom for two in Poland.

For people who don’t have space to accommodate fleeing refugees, Schiffmann said other offers are pouring in, such as transportation assistance or offers to accommodate refugees’ pets.

An ad from a host in Krakow, Poland, said he was willing to pay an Airbnb for a refugee.

Meanwhile, a host in Prague was offering temporary care for up to two cats, including vet fees and pet food costs.

“It’s kind of a Craigslist for refugees,” Mr. Schiffmann said.

“The problem with the site is that it puts the power back in the hands of the refugees – they can see the listings and choose from them rather than waiting to be matched by a nonprofit or government. .

“They already feel helpless – now they can use their own initiative and go to the site and find a listing for themselves.”

A heartbreaking message Avi Schiffmann has received since the website was created

(Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein)

Since its launch, Schiffmann said he has heard from refugees and hosts who have connected through the website.

A heartbreaking message he shared with The Independent read: “Again thank you for creating this website, if it wasn’t for your website. He was losing hope of coming back alive.

He said: “A lot of people don’t want to leave Ukraine if they don’t know they can find stable accommodation across the border.

“People are scared for their lives, but they’re also scared of what will happen if they don’t have a plan in place.”

The teenager said he got the idea days after the war started when he started thinking about ways to help Ukrainians where he lives in the United States.

He said he attended a protest against Russia’s attack with a friend in San Diego and felt like it “didn’t really help.”

“I went with a friend to a demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine in Balboa Park where people were holding signs saying ‘Stop Putin’ and Ukrainian flags,” he said.

“And I thought that was great for the couple hundred people there in San Diego, but I thought ‘it really doesn’t matter’.

“It’s just kind of a show that looks really great on Instagram but doesn’t really help Ukrainians.”

The protest in San Diego that inspired Avi Schiffmann to find another way to help Ukrainians

(Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein)

The teenager decided there had to be something more practical he could do to help.

That night – February 28 – he began his research and noticed that there was a challenge that could easily be solved.

He tweeted to his 54,000 followers: “A good idea would be to create a website to connect Ukrainian refugees with hosts in neighboring countries.

He got into bed and noticed that his tweet was gaining more and more traction.

“I was like ‘yeah okay, I’m the perfect person to do this’. And so I jumped out of bed and started,” he said.

He contacted his friend and Harvard University computer science student, Mr. Burstein, and they spent the next three days working around the clock until the website went live.

“We didn’t sleep for three days, we just got up as fast as we could,” he said.

The 19-year-old already had a big public platform after making headlines for launching a website during the pandemic tracking Covid-19 cases.

So he sought help from this online community for expertise in areas like cybersecurity and language translation.

“Anything I needed help with, like Romanian translations, I tweeted and within moments people were contacting me to help,” he said.

The result is a user-friendly website created entirely by volunteers and currently accessible in 12 different languages, including Ukrainian, Russian and Polish.

People who have space to host a refugee in their home can simply post an ad on the website.

A refugee then uses the simple search function to search for shelter in a specific area and the website shows them all nearby places and what hosts offer.

The refugee can then contact a host directly via the contact details provided.

Amid concerns for the safety of Ukrainian refugees as well as hosts taking a stand against Russian aggression, it was important to make the site as secure as possible.

Avi Schiffmann (left) and Marco Burstein (right) pictured together

(Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein)

Neither host nor refugee share their exact locations on the site and refugees don’t even need to create an account.

Email addresses aren’t shared on the website because people often use their first and last names, which makes it easier to identify them, Schiffmann said.

The student said he was surprised Western governments hadn’t already set up something like his website for the millions of people fleeing Ukraine.

“Many governments are trying to do what they can but – like with the Covid website – I don’t understand how a 19 year old with no design experience can be faster and create a more accessible website than the government most powerful country in the whole world,” he said.

“And not just governments, but also NGOs and nonprofits.”

Mr. Schiffmann said the site is now also used by humanitarian aid groups on the ground with Ukrainian refugees and that he is now working closely with some groups to further improve the site.

This article was originally published on March 11 and has been updated.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we launched our first campaign to welcome refugees during the war in Syria in 2015. Today, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition to Following the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, we are asking the government to go further and faster to ensure the delivery of aid. To learn more about our Welcome to Refugees campaign, Click here. To sign the petition Click here. If you would like to donate, please Click here for our GoFundMe page.

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