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Harvard Freshmen’s Website is Helping Ukrainian Refugees Find Shelter

March 14, 2022 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Hundreds of refugees have found shelter through the site built by Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burtsein.

When Harvard freshman Avi Schiffmann attended an anti-war protest recently, he saw people holding signs saying stop the war and heard about the desperate conditions of Ukrainian refugees. “It was great,” he explained in a recent Aish.com interview, “but I thought I could be doing a lot more for these people than holding up signs.”

Avi is no stranger to helping others in a big way. Two years ago, when he was a high school junior, Avi created a website to provide real-time data on Covid-19 cases worldwide. His site soon became the single most visited Covid tracking site, racking up over 30 million views every day in the early months of the pandemic.

Avi, now 19, has teamed up with Harvard classmate Marco Burstein to launch another important website, UkraineTakeShelter.com, an independent platform which helps Ukrainian refugees and people offering temporary housing find one another. “There are three million Ukrainian refugees right now,” Avi notes, “and there will probably be more. Our site gives power back to the hands of the refugees. It allows them to look at a city where they’re going and see what opportunities are there for housing with host families.”

“I was in bed and I tweeted out that someone should make a website that matches up Ukrainian refugees with host families.” His tweet struck a chord.

Soon his phone was lighting up with comments. People around the world thought it was a great idea, but no one was doing anything to make it a reality.

“I got out of bed and started making a basic user interface,” Avi explains with a chuckle. He phoned up Marco and asked if he’d like to help. Working non-stop, the two didn’t get much sleep for the next three days.

On March 3, UkraineTakeShelter.com went live. The site allows potential host families to set up an account, offering shelter to Ukrainian refugees. “If someone has a couch available, they can support a refugee,” Avi explained to The Washington Post. “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.”

Within a week, over 4,000 potential hosts signed up. The offers of help include offers to house individuals or entire families.

One Warsaw host wrote “1 available spot for sleeping. Warm and safe place to stay. It goes without saying that the person will have access to supplies and whatever else I can offer to provide psychological support.”

A potential host in Budapest offered the use of their pull-out sofa bed.

A potential host in Portland, Oregon, offered to host a family in their small townhouse: “I can host a small family of 2 or 3, or children who’ve lost their families.”

One farming family in Belgium offered shelter for “1 family up to 8 people in a family house in the countryside.”

By the time Aish.com spoke with Avi, thousands of new hosts had signed up. As the site continues to grow, Avi and Marco have been reaching out to volunteers all around the world asking for ways to improve it. Aid workers and volunteers in Europe helped translate much of the site into Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Czech and Romanian. Others provided feedback and advice on user experience and safety features. Avi continually adds new features to the site such as dates that potential hosts can offer accommodation, details about how far from a particular city potential hosts are, and whether or not potential hosts can provide transportation to bring refugees to their accommodation.

Avi notes that many of the people in Europe who’ve been helping provide advice and feedback have been Jews. He and Marco credit their Jewish upbringing with motivating them to build the site. “It’s in some way a Kiddush Hashem,” he notes, using the Hebrew phrase for something done by a Jew that inspires respect for God and the Jewish people.

Avi holds Israeli citizenship and now calls Portland home. He spent last summer in Israel going to camp and spending some time learning in Ohr Sameach, a Jerusalem yeshiva. Several rabbis he met in Israel have put him in touch with rabbis in Eastern Europe, who have advised him about the project. “There’s a certain level of trust,” Avi notes, within the Jewish community.

The site uses no pictures or personal names. With the threat of Russian hacking, this ensures that no personal details can ever be compromised.

“In Poland, every listing gets immediately marked as filled,” Avi observes. Avi estimates that hundreds of refugees have found temporary shelter as a result of the website to date. Dozens of them have reached out to Avi and Marco thanking them for the site.

As the war in Ukraine continues, Avi hopes that more people learn about UkraineTakeShelter.com and use its resources and that aid groups who are assisting refugees will use the site. Fortunately, Avi had taken this semester off for an internship. “Right now, working on the site is only thing I’m doing.”

With so much need, Avi explains, he feels compelled to do all he can to help. He encourages anyone who can offer to help house refugees, or who can help him spread the word about the clearinghouse he’s built, to get in touch through UkraineTakeShelter.com.




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