Two freshmen from Harvard University have launched a website designed to connect people fleeing Ukraine with those who want to take them to safer countries – and this is creating worldwide help and accommodation offers.
Inspired by the plight of Ukrainian refugees desperate to survive Russian bombings across the former Soviet republic, Marco Berstein, 18, of Los Angeles, and Avi Schiffman, 19, of Seattle, used their coding skills to create three
Since then, more than 18,000 potential hosts have signed up on the site to help refugees find matches with hosts in their preferred or convenient location. In recent days, Burstein and Schiffman have logged 800,000 users.
“We’ve heard all kinds of amazing stories of hosts and refugees connecting around the world,” Berstein said in an interview at the Harvard campus. “We have hosts in almost any country you can imagine, from Hungary and Romania and from Poland to Canada to Australia. And we were really surprised by the response. “
Thousands of people on both sides have died in the five weeks since the aggression, and according to the United Nations, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country is surprisingly over 4 million, half of them children.
Schiffman, who is taking a semester off to work on several projects, said from Miami that he was inspired to use his Internet activism to help after attending a pro-Ukrainian rally in San Diego.
“I felt like I could do something more global here,” he said. “The Ukraine Tech Shelter returns power to the refugees … they are able to take the initiative and find the list and communicate with the hosts themselves instead of being stuck in a control in Eastern Europe. It’s winter. “
Among those who have taken refuge through the website is Ricard Mizarov, a resident of the southwestern Swedish city of Linkoping, who is sharing his home with Oksana Frantseva, a 45-year-old Ukrainian evictor, his 18-year-old daughter and their cat.
Mizarov and his wife signed up at an embassy indicating they would help, but then stumbled upon a Harvard student site and registered there.
“The next morning, I had a message from Oksana asking if we had a place for them,” he said in an interview via Zoom. “It has become a reality quite quickly.”
“I was amazed at how quickly Ricard answered me,” said Frantseva, pausing in English. Five days later, she, her daughter, and their pet were at the front door.
Berstein and Schiffman designed the platform with war refugees in mind. They’ve worked to make it as easy as possible so that anyone in immediate danger can enter their location and see the offer of help closest to them.
In terms of hosting, they also give potential hosts the opportunity to indicate what language they speak; How many refugees they can accommodate; And no restrictions on the adoption of young children or pets.
To help avoid human trafficking and other dangers faced by vulnerable refugees, the platform encourages refugees to request hosts to provide their full names and social media profiles and a video call to show what they are arranging to stay.
“We know this is a potentially dangerous situation, so we have a number of steps we can take to ensure the safety of our refugees,” Berstein said. “We have detailed guidelines for all refugees to help verify the host they are talking to – make sure the person they are talking to on the phone is the same person they are meeting. Privately. “
The two students said they were trying to arrange a meeting with UN refugee agency officials and wanted to work with Airbnb, Vrbo and other online vacation rental companies.
So far, they have borne all the costs – a hassle for college students – the cost of web hosting and Google Translate. But they are determined to continue as long as possible and are looking to register as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit so they can apply for a grant.
Back in Sweden, Mizarov admits it was a bit uncomfortable to open his house, but he has no regrets.
“This is the first time we’ve done something like this,” he said, sitting next to FrontSaver. “But they are very good people. So, yes, that’s fine. “