By Alaa Elassar, CNN
Updated: Sun, 20 Mar 2022 16:24:16 GMT
Two Harvard University students have created a website connecting thousands of Ukrainian refugees with hosts around the world offering them a safe haven.
The idea was born when Avi Schiffmann attended a pro-Ukraine demonstration while visiting San Diego, where he came face to face with hundreds of Ukrainian Americans sharing distressing stories and pleading for help.
"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 assistance, immediately and on a really big scale, and I had to find a way to make that happen as soon as possible."
As of Friday, at least 847 civilians -- including 64 children -- have been killed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began in late February, according to the latest update from the United Nations Human Rights Office.
More than three million people have since fled Ukraine, according to the International Organization for Migration. Thousands more head to the border every day. Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians remain in a country where active conflict has cut off access to basic supplies and medicine.
Schiffmann, who resides in Seattle while he takes a semester off school, reached out to fellow classmate and friend Marco Burstein to share his idea.
Although Burstein was 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 pair spent every waking moment designing, editing and perfecting a website dedicated to assisting refugees.
Ukraine Take Shelter launched on March 3. Within a week more than 4,000 people had created listings offering shelter to Ukrainian refugees.
"For me, I'm behind a computer across the world, which is what I'm good at, but it's very disconnected sometimes," Schiffmann said. "To see so many people from countries in every corner of the world doing something to help these refugees, who need and deserve safety, is really inspiring."
This isn't the first time Schiffmann has used his passion for web design to help strangers.
During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, he built a website to track 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 everybody has a smart phone and internet connection," Schiffmann said. "There's always something happening around 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 more than one million users on Ukraine Take Shelter and over 25,000 listings. Short- and long-term hosts across the world have offered whatever they can, from living room couches and spare bedrooms, to entire homes and apartments.
Schiffmann and Burstein are now 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 nonprofit and government organizations.
The website has caught the attention of many, including the Ukrainian government, which responded to one of Schiffmann's tweets.
"Dear Avi Schiffmann, many thanks for your important work," Ukrain'e official government Twitter account wrote.
'This puts power back into the hands of refugees'
While designing Ukraine Take Shelter, Schiffmann's and Burstein's priority was making it as easy to use as possible.
"When I researched what tools Ukrainian refugees had to get connected to hosts, they weren't very efficient," Schiffmann said. "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."
"Now they can see tens of thousands of listings around the world ready for them to match with, and all they have to do is call or text them immediately," he said.
The website design is simple. Refugees enter the nearest city where they hope to flee. Then they can go through available listings, each with a description of the accommodation.
Finally, the refugee can click on the phone or email button to get the personal contact information of the listing holder.
The site has been translated into dozens of languages, including Ukrainian, German and Polish.
"This puts power back into the hands of refugees by allowing them to take the initiative, go straight to the website, enter their city and immediately find listings," Schiffmann said. "They don't need to rely on anyone else to help them find a safe place. There's millions of refugees, and it's going to be millions more, so balancing efficiency and security as well as safety is critical."
Of course, there are safety concerns. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths told CNN that human traffickers might take advantage of refugees.
"There may be predatory people who will be taking some of these women and girls away," he said. "That's an added, 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 examples of questions to ask.
Schiffmann and Burstein said they worked with experts to make sure the site was built with strong cybersecurity.
"It can't get hacked into, and even if someone tries. There is nothing dangerous that can geolocate the refugees or put their lives at risk," Schiffmann said. "There are safety features to make sure the refugees are in constant contact with the hosts until they arrive."
The pair are currently partnering with major companies, which they can't reveal yet, to work on making sure all the listings are verified to better guarantee refugee safety.
'We want to help you find peace again'
When a refugee searches the website for a host in the nearest city to them, they are met with dozens if not hundreds of options.
Some are young couples who don't have much to offer but a mattress on the floor. Others are big families offering whatever space they can.
"We want to help you find peace again," one host from the US wrote in a listing.
Many also offer to help refugees with basic necessities like food and clothes. Others offer babysitting help. Those who can't offer their homes can be found providing various forms of assistance, from donating money to pet sitting for those who need it.
"I have a place for one person...I know it's not so much, but I can provide a roof and food until he/she can find a job or a stable situation," another host offering to share their apartment in Paris said on the website.
Another host, in Poland, said: "We would like to offer a double room in our home. We don't have a big house but you will be safe, warm and fed. We have a young child so feel we could best help someone with also a young child or baby."
Among the thousands of interactions taking place through Ukraine Take Shelter was one story Schiffmann said would stick with him for the rest of his life.
A family in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, were looking to escape the country.
After matching with a host offering their French countryside home, the family fled. Only three days later, they discovered their entire home, including the basement where they had been sheltering, was completely destroyed.
"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," he said.
After the war ends and the website is no longer needed, the pair hope to expand their efforts to help asylum seekers find a place to call home -- if even for a brief moment.
"I have plans to expand to all refugees in general, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, any victims of natural disasters or wars," Schiffmann said. "It is just as important they can find available housing, too, and we're going to make that happen."