CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Two Harvard University freshmen have launched a website designed to connect people fleeing Ukraine with those in safer countries who are willing to take them – and generating offers of help and housing around the world.
Moved by the plight of Ukrainian refugees desperate to escape the Russian bombardment of the former Soviet republic, Marco Burstein, 18, of Los Angeles, and Avi Schiffmann, 19, of Seattle, used their programming skills to launch UkraineTakeShelter.com in three hectic days to create early March.
Since then, more than 18,000 potential hosts have signed up on the site to help refugees find matches with hosts in their favorite or suitable locations. In a recent day, Burstein and Schiffmann logged 800,000 users.
“We’ve heard all sorts of amazing stories from hosts and refugees who have networked around the world,” Burstein said in an interview on the Harvard campus. “We have hosts in almost every country you can think of, from Hungary and Romania and Poland to Canada and Australia. And the response really blew us away.”
Five weeks into the invasion that has left thousands dead on both sides, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country has passed a staggering 4 million, half of them children, according to the United Nations.
Schiffmann, who took a semester off to work on several projects, said he was inspired by Miami to use his internet activism to help after attending a pro-Ukraine rally in San Diego have.
“I felt like I could really do something on a more global scale here,” he said. “Ukraine Take Shelter puts the power back in the hands of refugees… they can take the initiative and find shelters themselves and connect with hosts instead of having to freeze on a curb in winter in Eastern Europe. ”
Among those who have taken in refugees through the website is Rickard Mijatov, a resident of the southwestern Swedish city of Linköping, who shares his home with 45-year-old Ukrainian evacuee Oksana Frantseva, her 18-year-old daughter and their cat.
Mijatov and his wife registered with an embassy and said they would help, but then stumbled onto the Harvard student website and registered there as well.
“The next morning I had a message from Oksana asking if we had room for her,” he said in an interview via Zoom. “It became a reality pretty quickly.”
“I was surprised at how quickly Rickard answered me,” Frantseva said in halting English. Five days later, she, her daughter, and her pet were at the front door.
Burstein and Schiffmann designed the platform with the special concerns of combat refugees in mind. They’ve worked to make it as easy to use as possible, so people in imminent danger can enter their location and see the offers of help that are closest to them.
On the host page, they also gave potential hosts the option to indicate which languages they speak; how many refugees they can take in; and any restrictions on the admission of young children or pets.
To avoid human trafficking and other dangers vulnerable refugees face, the platform encourages evacuees to ask hosts to provide their full names and social media profiles, and to request a video call to show what shelters they offer.
“We know this is a potentially dangerous situation, so we have taken many steps to ensure the protection of our refugees,” Burstein said. “We have a detailed guide that we are giving to all refugees to help them verify the host they are speaking to – make sure the person they are speaking to on the phone is the same person they are speaking to meet in person.”
The two students say they are trying to set up a meeting with officials from the UN refugee agency, and they also want to work with Airbnb, Vrbo and other online vacation rental companies.
So far, they’ve borne all of the costs — a hardship for college students — for web hosting and Google Translate costs. However, they are determined to keep going for as long as possible and are considering 501(c)(3) nonprofit registration so they can apply for grants.
Back in Sweden, Mijatov admits it was a bit unnerving to open his house, but he has no regrets.
“It’s the first time we’re doing something like this,” he said, sitting down next to Frantseva. “But they are very nice people. So yes, things are going well.”
https://nypost.com/2022/04/05/harvard-students-site-helping-ukraine-refugees-find-housing/ Harvard students’ website helps Ukrainian refugees find housing