MANILA, Philippines – Two teenage Harvard students have launched the “Ukraine Take Shelter” website to help refugees from war-stricken Ukraine find new homes.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, around 6.48 million people have been internally displaced in Ukraine according to the research conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) conducted between March 9 to 16.
Amid the shock from the attacks, finding shelter to regain peace and comfort is of utmost importance for Ukrainians, especially given the current chilly season.
After participating in a pro-Ukraine rally in San Diego and hearing stories from Ukrainian Americans directly, Avi Schiffmann, 19, felt compelled to do more to help.
In his interview with CNN, Schiffman said,”I remember thinking, ‘I know how to design websites with big platforms,’ so how could I not do anything to help?”
“They need assistance, immediately and on a really big scale, and I had to find a way to make that happen as soon as possible,” he added.
Ukraine Take Shelter In Action
Schiffmann said he noticed that the methods employed for finding hosts for Ukrainian refugees were not very efficient.
As a problem solver, Schiffman wanted to change that, saying “This website allows refugees to not have to sit on a curb in some European country during the winter while they wait for one overwhelmed group or another to connect them.”
Schiffmann then contacted his computer science major friend, Marco Burstein, 18, to share his idea and put the vision into action.
As time is of the essence, the Harvard undergrads put much effort in creating the website and completed the web development in three days.
Upon launching on March 3, Ukraine Take Shelter has received more than 4,000 potential hosts within a week.
Spaces offered by people wanting to extend their hospitality ranged from a vacant resort condo to a bedroom in an apartment, or a humble living room couch among others.
According to CNN’s report, there have been more than one million users on Ukraine Take Shelter and over 25,000 listings to date.
Expanding the scope of safe spaces offered for the refugees, Schiffmann and Burstein are currently working on how to incorporate listings from major rental platforms like Airbnb and other organizations.
Ensuring Ease and Safety
The website presents users with an easy-to-navigate interface. They need only enter the city where they hope to find shelter, then the list of available accommodations appears with descriptions to see which would be fitting for their party.
Contact numbers or emails of the listing holder can then be used by the user to communicate and finalize arrangements.
Schiffman said, “There’s millions of refugees, and it’s going to be millions more, so balancing efficiency and security as well as safety is critical.”
To ensure users’ security, the pair made sure using the website would not allow hackers to geolocate refugees, and that guidelines are given for users to watch out for red flags, should predators take advantage of this space for human trafficking.
They have also partnered with major companies to scrutinize listings to guarantee refugee safety.
Using Talents for A Greater Cause
Schiffmann has used his tech talents in other various efforts.
In 2020, he received the 2020 Webby Person of the Year Award for his nCoV2019.live website that tracks the spread of COVID-19 across the world with real-time data, serving as an important tool for people and sectors across the globe.
He has also created a website that lets people locate Black Lives Matter protests they can join.
For his work on Ukraine Take Shelter with Marco Burstein, the Ukrainian government extended their gratitude through their official Twitter account.
However, their most valuable reward for this effort does not come from the recognition and praises from people, but from the realization of how great of an impact this has had on precious lives.
Schiffmann said one story among the website’s users would stick with him for the rest of his life.
A family in Kharkiv fled their home after finally finding a listing of a French countryside home on the website.
Only three days later, they discovered their entire home had been completely destroyed – a very close call if they had not been relocated.
“That’s what made me realize how real this was, that this website isn’t just helping people find housing, it’s saving their lives,” the Ukraine Take Shelter pioneer said.