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Harvard teens launch website matching Ukrainian refugees with people offering places to stay

'We're incredibly fortunate to be going to Harvard and to have loving families and live in a safe environment. We felt it was our turn to give back.'

Harvard teens launch website matching Ukrainian refugees with people offering places to stay
Cover Image Source: Refugees fleeing Ukraine walk to the reception centre at the Velke Slemence border crossing on March 10, 2022 in Velke Slemence, Slovakia. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Two years ago, when the world was just beginning to realize the true scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 17-year-old from Washington set out to create—a website that monitors cases around the world. "I mainly wanted to create something that would show the data as accurately as possible because there has been a lot of misinformation," Avi Schiffmann told TODAY at the time. The site was so well-received that the teen was even presented a Webby Person of the Year award online in 2020 by Anthony Fauci. Now a freshman at Harvard University, when Russia began its brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine, Schiffmann couldn't stop thinking about the thousands of civilians being displaced from their homes.


"I couldn't stop thinking about what I could do to help," the 19-year-old, who was visiting San Diego while taking a semester off, told The Washington Post. "I wanted to do something that would have an instant impact." Inspiration struck late one night after attending a demonstration in San Diego protesting the Russian attack. "A cool idea would be to set up a website to match Ukrainian refugees to hosts in neighboring countries," Schiffmann tweeted. After putting out a call for help from people who spoke other languages to translate the website into Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Czech and Romanian, the teen reached out to his Harvard classmate Marco Burstein to ask if he could help him develop the website quickly.


Burstein—an 18-year-old computer coding whiz—was 3000 miles away in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had his hands full with papers that needed to be written and classes he had to attend. Still, he told Schiffmann that he was in. The pair immediately got to work, communicating almost non-stop via text and FaceTime to create a website that would be easy to navigate for people offering help and those seeking it. Three days and only five hours of sleep later, on March 3, they launched Ukraine Take Shelter


Available in 12 languages, Ukraine Take Shelter connects Ukrainian refugees fleeing war with hosts who are willing to house them in their spare rooms, unused resort condos, mother-in-law apartments and school dormitories. "If someone has a couch available, they can support a refugee," said Schiffmann. "And if somebody has an entire house, they can put it on the site and support a whole family. What we've done is put out a super-fast, stripped-down version of Airbnb." Over 4,000 potential hosts around the world—including in the United States—listed a place to stay through the website in the first week, said Schiffmann. The number continues to grow each day.


"I have to ask myself, 'If not I, who? If not now, when?' I cannot stop this invasion, but my faith tells me now is my time to help others find safety and shelter," one host from the United States commented. While most of the hosts who sign up are from countries surrounding Ukraine, Schiffmann and Burstein have also seen offers from as far away as Israel and Canada. "The number of new hosts we're getting every day is mind-blowing, and we're seeing immediate results in how the website is making a difference," Burstein said. "It's literally saving lives for people in a terrifying situation." In some cases, the hosts are even offering to pay for airline tickets to get families to safety, he added.


Burstein and Schiffmann explained that they see their project as a public bulletin board offering something for everyone fleeing Ukraine amid Russia's attack. "We found that existing sites run by governments to help refugees were clumsy and full of complicated jargon," Schiffmann said. "You submit something into a black box and just hope that somebody will read it and help you. Somebody running away from explosions and gunfire is under stress and needs something that is more straightforward and easy to use. Our goal was to get the site up as fast as possible to help as many people as possible, and that's exactly what is happening." He added that exact addresses aren't provided for the hosts or the refugees for security reasons.


"Avi and I met after we came to Harvard," Burstein revealed. "I made a website last summer so that Harvard students could see what classes all their friends were taking, and Avi reached out to me about it. When Avi texted me about doing something for people in Ukraine, I had a sense that we could really make a difference with this. We're incredibly fortunate to be going to Harvard and to have loving families and live in a safe environment. We felt it was our turn to give back." Schiffmann now hopes it will be possible to link efforts with agencies offering aid to Ukrainians. "What's happening in the world right now is really scary to watch," he said. "People my age who were born after 9/11 have never witnessed anything like this. There have been more than 2 million refugees from Ukraine and it's bound to get worse. They all deserve a safe place to stay."


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