These teens created a website connecting Ukrainian refugees with hosts offering shelter

The idea was born when Avi Schiffmann attended a pro-Ukrainian protest while visiting San Diego, where he came face to face with hundreds of Ukrainian Americans sharing harrowing stories and pleading for peace. ‘aid.

“I remember thinking, ‘I know how to design websites with big platforms,’ so how could I not do anything to help?” Schiffmann, 19, told CNN. “They need help, immediately and on a massive scale, and I had to find a way to get it there as soon as possible.”

Schiffmanwho resides in Seattle while taking a semester off from school, reached out to classmate and friend Marco Burstein to share his idea.

Although Burstein is in Massachusetts and entangled in the middle of a busy semester, the 18-year-old computer science major signed up for the effort.

For three days — and only a few meals in between, according to Schiffmann — the couple spent every moment designing, editing and perfecting a website dedicated to helping refugees.

Ukraine takes shelter launched on March 3. Within a week, more than 4,000 people had created lists offering shelter to Ukrainian refugees.

“For me, I’m behind a computer around the world, which I do well, but sometimes it’s very disconnected,” Schiffmann said. “To see so many people from countries around the world doing something to help these refugees, who need and deserve safety, is truly inspiring.”

This isn’t the first time Schiffmann has used his passion for web design to help strangers.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he built a website to monitor the impact of Covid-19. That same year, he also designed a website that tracked Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the United States.

“I see it like this: almost everyone has a smart phone and an internet connection,” Schiffmann said. “There is always something happening in the world, an earthquake, a war, a pandemic, and there is always a way to use technology to improve the lives of people in these humanitarian crises.”

To date, there have been over one million users on Ukraine Take Shelter and over 25,000 listings. Short-term and long-term hosts around the world have donated everything they can, from living room sofas to guest rooms to entire homes and apartments.

Schiffmann and Burstein are currently working on a way to allow the website to also aggregate listings from major rental platforms, such as Airbnb and Vrbo, as well as listings posted by nonprofits and government organizations.

The website caught the attention of many, including the Ukrainian government, which responded to one of Schiffmann’s tweets.

“Dear Avi Schiffmann, thank you very much for your important work,” Ukrain’e official government Twitter account wrote.

“It puts power back in the hands of the refugees”

When designing Ukraine Take Shelter, Schiffmann and Burstein’s priority was to make it as easy to use as possible.

“When I researched the tools Ukrainian refugees had to connect to hosts, they weren’t very effective,” Schiffmann said. “This website saves refugees from having to sit on a sidewalk in some European countries during winter waiting for one overwhelmed group or another to connect them.”

“Now they can see tens of thousands of ads from around the world ready to match, and all they have to do is call or text them right away,” he said. he declares.

The website design is simple. The refugees enter the nearest town where they hope to flee. Then they can browse the available listings, each with a description of the accommodation.

More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Russia invaded.  Here is where they are now

Finally, the refugee can click on the telephone or e-mail button to obtain the list holder’s personal details.

The site has been translated into dozens of languages, including Ukrainian, German and Polish.

“It puts the power back in the hands of the refugees by allowing them to take the initiative, go straight to the website, walk into their town and find listings immediately,” Schiffmann said. “They don’t need to rely on anyone else to help them find a safe place. There are millions of refugees, and there will be millions more, so it’s essential to balancing efficiency and safety as well as safety.”

Of course, there are security issues. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths told CNN that human traffickers could take advantage of refugees.

“There may be predators that will take some of these women and girls away,” he said. “It is an additional and indecent part of this terrible conflict.”

To mitigate the risk, Ukraine Take Shelter includes warnings on each listing to guide refugees on how to safely contact a host, request a video call, and recognize possible red flags. The site also provides sample questions to ask.

Schiffmann and Burstein said they worked with experts to ensure the site was built with strong cybersecurity.

“It can’t be hacked, and even if someone tries. There’s nothing dangerous that can geotag refugees or put their lives at risk,” Schiffmann said. “There are security arrangements in place to ensure refugees are in constant contact with hosts until they arrive.”

The couple are currently working in partnership with major companies, which they cannot yet reveal, to ensure all listings are vetted to better ensure refugee safety.

“We want to help you find peace”

When a refugee searches the website for a host in the city closest to them, they come across dozens, if not hundreds of options.

Some are young couples who don’t have much to offer except a mattress on the floor. Others are large families offering all the space they can.

“We want to help you find peace,” one American host wrote in a listing.

Many also offer to help refugees with basic necessities like food and clothing. Others offer help with child care. Those who cannot afford their accommodation can provide various forms of assistance, ranging from donating money to caring for animals for those in need.

“I have accommodation for one person… I know it’s not that much, but I can provide shelter and food until he/she can find a job or a situation stable,” said another host offering to share his apartment in Paris. on the website.

One of the host listings on Ukraine Take Shelter.

Another host, in Poland, said: “We would like to offer a double room in our house. We don’t have a big house, but you will be safe, warm and fed. We have a young child, so we think that we could better help you. someone with also a young child or a baby.”

Among the thousands of interactions that take place through Ukraine takes shelter was a story that Schiffmann said would stay with him for the rest of his life.

A family from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, sought to flee the country.

After corresponding with a host offering their French country home, the family fled. Only three days later, they discovered that their entire house, including the basement where they had taken refuge, had been completely destroyed.

“That’s what made me realize how real it was, that this website doesn’t just help people find housing, it saves their lives,” he said.

Once the war is over and the website becomes useless, the two men hope to expand their efforts to help asylum seekers find a home, if only for a brief moment.

“I intend to extend to all refugees in general, refugees from Syria, from Afghanistan, all victims of natural disasters or wars,” Schiffmann said. “It’s equally important that they can find available accommodation as well, and we’re going to make sure that happens.”

Daniel L. Vasquez