Students create website to help Ukrainian refugees find housing

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Two teenagers who met at Harvard have created a website to help Ukrainian refugees find housing and host families amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Eastern Europe.

Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein press kit

A gap year student from Harvard University went to a public protest Feb. 28 against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was inspired to help fleeing refugees.

Avi Schiffmann and fellow student Marco Burstein therefore created the UkraineTakeShelter website to help connect Ukrainian refugees to potential host families and housing, they said.

Schiffmann, 19, from Seattle, is no stranger to building useful websites and is known for developing one of the first major COVID-19 tracking platforms – nCoV2019.live – that millions of people use, he told McClatchy News by phone.

They “found existing efforts to connect refugees to hosts to be extremely inefficient, non-scalable and difficult to sort out quickly,” Schiffmann and Burstein, 18, of Los Angeles, wrote in a statement. They created their site “so that refugees under stress can get the information they need as quickly as possible.”

Within days, there are already more than a thousand announcements of potential hosts in countries like Poland, Germany, Iceland and the United States, Schiffmann told McClatchy News during a telephone interview. He describes the site as a “stripped-down, Ukrainian-specific, Airbnb” type intuitive platform “on steroids”.

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Avi Schiffmann (left) and Marco Burstein (right) at Harvard. Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein press kit

Their website was launched on March 2 and comes as more than 1.7 million Ukrainians fled their homes after Russia attacked neighboring Ukraine in Eastern Europe on February 24, the report reported. Associated Press.

“I tried to really design the website by putting myself in the position that these refugees might be in, where they’re literally running away from a country, there’s explosions and gunshots, they’re running with their kids into a country stranger, they are lost, confused,” Schiffmann said.

The protest Schiffmann attended while currently living in San Diego, filled with signs such as “Stop Poutine,” got him thinking about his own skills and how he could apply them “to create something which has a much more direct impact on the whole world”. he said.

The next morning, March 1, Schiffmann contacted Burstein and they immediately began coding the website.

They met in the fall when they were freshmen at Harvard.

“We didn’t sleep for three days,” Schiffmann said, instead taking occasional 30-minute naps to have “enough energy to keep going.”

They designed UkraineTakeShelter with a simple structure that allows host families or organizations to register and create a list including details such as country, city, number of guests, if pets are allowed, badges to advertise skills such as speaking different languages ​​and more.

Additionally, a Ukrainian refugee seeking shelter can type the nearest town into the website’s search bar to receive results for the potential accommodation closest to them.

“I started thinking it would be really cool to create a website to put power back in the hands of refugees where they could take the initiative and just go to the search bar and type in their city and immediately see the listings available hosts,” Schiffmann said.

Users can also sort potential hosts with filters that match their needs, such as whether they need childcare assistance, legal assistance, transportation, etc., a he declared.

For example, if a single woman fleeing Ukraine prefers to stay with a host who is also a woman, she can use a gender filter, Schiffmann explained.

There is “a significant amount of traffic already coming from Eastern Europe,” Schiffmann said, adding that Ukrainian media have started reporting on it.

He said he’s been working with translators around the world to ensure the site defaults to his phone’s language. If a Ukrainian refugee accesses the site on their device, it will automatically display in Ukrainian. He also worked with cybersecurity experts to help verify his website.

When asked how he connected with the translators and experts who helped him, he simply pointed to Twitter and the following he’s amassed since launching his COVID-19 site.

He said he posts tweets asking for help on topics like cybersecurity or languages ​​and that users will respond “almost instantly” in his direct messages.

Schiffman said it was like “sending a bat signal out into the world”, referencing the popular superhero Batman.

He hopes more people will discover the website and hopes that anyone with ties to his family in Ukraine, neighboring Poland or to humanitarian organizations can contact him on Twitter or by sending an email to [email protected]

“I really want people to help me share the website as much as possible.”

This story was originally published March 7, 2022 7:50 p.m.

Julia Marnin is a McClatchy National Real-Time reporter covering the Southeast and Northeast while based in New York. She is a College of New Jersey alumnus and joined McClatchy in 2021. Previously, she has written for Newsweek, Modern Luxury, Gannett and more.

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