A 19-year-old Harvard student has created a website to easily connect Ukrainian refugees with people willing to house them


The first train with Ukrainian refugees arrived in Przemysl, Poland on February 24, 2022.Photo by Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

  • More than 1.5 million people fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

  • Two Harvard students have launched a website to help connect these refugees with potential hosts.

  • “It’s like a simplified version of Airbnb that caters directly to refugees,” the creator told Insider.

After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, causing more than a 1.5 million people to flee the country in an attempt to escape the war, Avi Schiffmann went to work.

Less than a week after the invasion, the 19-year-old Harvard University student and his friend designed, developed and launched a website designed to seamlessly connect Ukrainian refugees with people willing to house them: UkraineTakeShelter.com.

“The website is essentially a public bulletin board intended to make it easier to find available hosts for Ukrainian refugees,” Schiffman told Insider in an interview on Sunday. “It’s like a simplified version of Airbnb that caters directly to refugees.”

People can sign up as potential hosts from anywhere in the world and include details such as their location, the number of people they can host, the languages ​​they speak and whether they can help with transportation.

Refugees do not even need to register. They can go to UkraineTakeShelter.com and enter the city where they are located and the site will find the closest possible hosts.

A search for a single person located in Kiev, Ukraine, for example, returns potential hosts located in neighboring countries such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania. The ads have titles like “Sofa available for mother with children” and “Bucharest – 1 bedroom in an apartment”. They are labeled with details such as “2 Spaces” available, “Russian Speaker”, “Pets Allowed”, and “Kid-Friendly”.

By selecting a listing, a refugee receives the host’s contact details and can make arrangements from there. Lists are automatically translated based on who is using the site, making it extremely easy to use, regardless of your native language.

Schiffmann said the website was specifically designed to be as intuitive and simple as possible.

“We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of a refugee visiting this website. They are in a foreign country whose language they may not speak. They are probably lost and confused and have just escaped, literally, explosions and gunshots,” he said. “They don’t want to go to a website full of complicated paragraphs of government jargon.”

He said the intention is that anyone who has ever used the Internet can understand how to use it. The site has been vetted by cybersecurity experts and is designed so that refugees do not have to enter any personal information.

As of Sunday night, nearly 1,000 people from around the world had signed up as potential hosts, but Schiffmann said that number was doubling every 12 hours. In addition to Eastern Europe, hosts posted in the United States, the Netherlands, Iceland, France and more.

According to Schiffmann, most of the lists are in the West, but they are working hard to spread the word, reaching out to celebrities, professors, aid organizations and the media in Eastern Europe.

A family walks with their suitcases.

The first Ukrainian migrants enter Poland after Russia shelled Ukrainian territory – Polish-Ukrainian border crossing in Medyka, Poland, February 24, 2022.Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“We didn’t sleep for 3 nights”

Schiffmann had no prior connection to Ukraine, but a friend brought him to an anti-war rally in San Diego, and afterward he began to wonder if he could do something more. important to help.

He said that despite warnings of a massive refugee crisis and people hosting Ukrainians at train stations offering to accommodate them, there wasn’t a good way to connect the two. He sent out a tweet suggesting someone build a website to do just that.

“I’m in my pajamas in my bed, all comfy, and the tweet started to get a lot of traction,” Schiffmann said, adding that he realized he could actually build the site. “I immediately got out of bed and stayed awake for a few hours to work on the initial structure and interface of the site.”

Schiffmann called Marco Burstein, an 18-year-old web developer and friend of his from Harvard, and they immediately got to work.

“We didn’t sleep for three nights,” Schiffmann said, adding that they launched the site within days, on March 3, exactly one week after the invasion began.

Schiffmann is no stranger to internet activism, as he called it. In January 2020, while still in high school, he launched a COVID-19 tracking site which has been used by hundreds of millions of people. A year later, he launched another site to help people follow racial justice protests taking place across the United States.

Now he hopes that news of his refugee hosting site can spread just as quickly. He encourages anyone who hears about the site to share it online, in the hope that people who need it can find it.

“If there are people reading this who know any Ukrainians or Poles or aid organizations working there,” Schiffmann said, “help spread the word and share it.”

“I really think my website is a step ahead of anything out there.”

Do you have a topical tip? Contact this reporter at [email protected].

Read the original article at Business Intern


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