Harvard Students Create Website Matching Ukrainian Refugees with International Hosts

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."

More than three million people have since fled Ukraine, according to the International Organization for Migration. Thousands more head to the border every day. 

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."

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.

According to wappalyzer, The website is built with Next.js as its web framework. The programming language used is Node.js. Frontend development was with the help of Vercel. 

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.

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