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 disturbing stories and begging 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 DailyExpertNews. “They need immediate and large-scale help, and I had to find a way to make that happen as quickly as possible.”
Although Burstein was in Massachusetts and caught up in the middle of a busy semester, the 18-year-old computer science major volunteered for the effort.
For three days — and just a few meals in between, according to Schiffmann — the couple spent every moment of the day designing, editing and perfecting a website dedicated to helping refugees.
“For me, I’m sitting in front of a computer all over the world, and that’s what I’m good at, but it’s very closed off at times,” said Schiffmann. “To see so many people from countries in every corner of the world doing something to help these refugees, who need and deserve security, is truly inspiring.”
This isn’t the first time Schiffmann has used his passion for web design to help strangers.
“I see it this way: almost everyone has a smartphone and an internet connection,” said Schiffmann. “There’s always something happening around the world, an earthquake, a war, a pandemic, and there’s always a way to use technology to improve people’s lives in these humanitarian crises.”
To date, there are over a million users on Ukraine Take Shelter and over 25,000 listings. Short- and long-term landlords around the world have offered everything they can from living room sofas and guest bedrooms to entire houses and apartments.
Schiffmann and Burstein are now working on a way for the website to also collect ads from major rental platforms, such as Airbnb and Vrbo, as well as ads from non-profit and government organizations.
The website has caught the attention of many, including the Ukrainian government, who responded to one of Schiffmann’s tweets.
‘This puts power back in the hands of refugees’
When designing Ukraine Take Shelter, Schiffmann and Burstein’s priority was to make it as user-friendly as possible.
“When I researched what tools Ukrainian refugees had to interact with hosts, they weren’t very efficient,” Schiffmann said. “This website ensures that refugees don’t have to sit on a curb in some European country during the winter while waiting for some overwhelmed group to connect them.”
“Now they can see tens of thousands of offers around the world ready to match, and all they have to do is call or text them immediately,” he said.
The design of the website is simple. Refugees enter the nearest town where they hope to flee. Then they can view the available listings, each with a description of the property.
Finally, the refugee can click on the phone or email button to get the personal contact details of the listing holder.
The site has been translated into dozens of languages, including Ukrainian, German and Polish.
“This empowers refugees by letting them take the initiative, go straight to the website, enter their city and find listings immediately,” said Schiffmann. “They don’t have to rely on anyone else to help them find a safe place. There are millions of refugees, and there will be millions more, so balancing efficiency and security and safety is critical. “
Of course there are security issues. UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths told DailyExpertNews that traffickers could take advantage of refugees.
“There may be predatory people who will take some of these women and girls away,” he said. “That’s an added, indecent part of this terrible conflict.”
To reduce the risk, Ukraine Take Shelter has included warnings on every listing to help refugees safely contact a host, request a video call, and spot potential red flags. The site also provides sample questions you can ask.
Schiffmann and Burstein said they worked with experts to ensure the site was built with strong cybersecurity.
“It cannot be hacked into, even if someone tries. There is nothing dangerous that could geolocate the refugees or endanger their lives,” said Schiffmann. “Security facilities are in place to ensure the refugees have constant contact with the hosts until they arrive.”
The pair are currently working with major companies, who are yet to disclose them, to ensure all listings are verified to better ensure refugee safety.
‘We want to help you find peace again’
When a refugee searches the website for a host in the nearest city, they are presented with dozens, if not hundreds of options.
Some are young couples who have little to offer other than a mattress on the floor. Others are large families who offer as much space as possible.
“We want to help you find peace again,” a host from the US wrote in an ad.
Many also offer to help refugees with basic needs such as food and clothing. Others offer babysitting help. Those unable to offer their homes offer various forms of assistance, from donating money to caring for animals for those who need it.
“I have a place for one person…I know it’s not that much, but I can provide a roof and food until he/she can find a job or stable situation,” said another host who offers to share their apartment in Paris. on the website.
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 I think we can do best help someone with also a young child or baby.”
A family in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, wanted to flee the country.
After a match with a host offering their home in the French countryside, the family fled. Just three days later, they discovered that their entire house, including the basement where they had found shelter, had been completely destroyed.
“It made me realize how real this was, that this website not only helps people find housing, but also saves their lives,” he said.
After the war is over and the website is no longer needed, the couple hope to expand their efforts to help asylum seekers find a place to call home, if only for a brief moment.
“I have plans to expand to all refugees in general, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, all victims of natural disasters or wars,” Schiffmann said. “It is just as important that they can also find available housing, and we are going to make that happen.”