Avi Schiffmann climbed into bed after attending a demonstration in San Diego protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but sleep wouldn’t come.
Two years earlier, when he was 17, he’d developed a website, ncov2019.live, to help track the spread of the coronavirus around the world. The site was so well received that Schiffmann was presented a Webby Person of the Year award online in 2020 by Anthony S. Fauci.
Schiffman suddenly sat up in bed with an idea: Make a website for Ukrainian refugees who needed places to stay in other countries. He put out a tweet.
“a cool idea would be to set up a website to match Ukrainian refugees to hosts in neighboring countries,” Schiffmann posted.
a cool idea would be to set up a website to match Ukrainian refugees to hosts in neighboring countries— Avi Schiffmann 🇺🇦 (@AviSchiffmann) February 28, 2022
He followed up asking for help from people who spoke other languages to translate the website into Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Czech and Romanian.
Then he texted his Harvard University freshman classmate Marco Burstein, an 18-year-old computer coding whiz, to ask if he could help him quickly develop a website.
Burstein was 3,000 miles away in Cambridge, Mass., and had papers to write and classes to attend. Still, he was in, he told Schiffmann.
The pair worked almost nonstop texting and on FaceTime to create a website that would be easy to navigate for people offering help and those seeking it.
On March 3 — three days and only five hours of sleep later — they launched Ukraine Take Shelter, a site in 12 languages where Ukrainian refugees fleeing war can immediately find hosts with spare rooms, unused resort condos, mother-in-law apartments and school dormitories.
“If someone has a couch available, they can support a refugee,” said Schiffmann. “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,” he said.
In the first week, more than 4,000 potential hosts around the world, including in the United States, have offered a place to stay through Ukraine Take Shelter, said Schiffmann, noting that the number of hosts grows each day.
One host from the United States commented: “I have to ask myself, ‘If not I, who? If not now, when?’ ” I cannot stop this invasion, but my faith tells me now is my time to help others find safety and shelter.”
While most of the hosts who sign up live in countries surrounding Ukraine, Schiffmann and Burstein have seen offers from as far away as Israel and Canada.
In some cases, the hosts are even springing for airline tickets to get families to safety, Burstein said.
“The number of new hosts we’re getting every day is mind-blowing, and we’re seeing immediate results in how the website is making a difference,” he said. “It’s literally saving lives for people in a terrifying situation.”
Both he and Schiffmann said they see their project as a public bulletin board offering something for everyone who is packing up whatever they can carry and fleeing Ukraine.
“We found that existing sites run by governments to help refugees were clumsy and full of complicated jargon,” Schiffmann said. “You submit something into a black box and just hope that somebody will read it and help you.”
“Somebody running away from explosions and gunfire is under stress and needs something that is more straightforward and easy to use,” he added.
On the Ukraine Take Shelter website, refugees type in their current locations and dozens of host offers pop up from the closest towns in neighboring countries, Burstein said. They can also specify the number of people who need shelter and whether they have pets or family members with special needs.
For example, on March 9, somebody fleeing Kyiv would have found listings from hosts offering accommodations ranging from a sofa in a one-bedroom apartment in Lithuania to a nine-bedroom chalet with eight bathrooms in Romania.
“I am a medical student, as is my boyfriend and we live in a one-bedroom apartment in the center of Kaunas, Lithuania,” wrote the volunteer host who had an available sofa.
“As of such we can only offer our couch in the living room with free food, supplies and anything else that is necessary,” she continued. “We don’t have any kids and could babysit as well.”
Texans lined up for hours to support Ukrainian-owned bakery: ‘It was like all of San Antonio showed up’
Some hosts don’t have room for more people, but they’re offering assistance for pets.
“We are offering a temporary place for one dog,” wrote a host from Latvia. “We are living in an apartment building, but with a lot of green areas and dog parks next to us. Your dog will have food, care, a bed and long walks!”
The key to the website’s design is its simplicity, said Schiffmann, noting that exact addresses aren’t provided for the hosts or the refugees for security reasons.
“Our goal was to get the site up as fast as possible to help as many people as possible, and that’s exactly what is happening,” he said.
Both he and Burstein were drawn to building webpages when they were young and learned how to tackle coding by watching YouTube videos, said Schiffmann, who grew up in the Seattle area.
Burstein, who grew up in Los Angeles, said he learned to program computers when he was in third grade.
“Avi and I met after we came to Harvard,” he said. “I made a website last summer so that Harvard students could see what classes all their friends were taking, and Avi reached out to me about it.”
The two ended up bonding over their common interest of using technology to solve problems, said Burstein.
“When Avi texted me about doing something for people in Ukraine, I had a sense that we could really make a difference with this,” he said.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to be going to Harvard and to have loving families and live in a safe environment,” he added. “We felt it was our turn to give back.”
Schiffmann said it’s a testament to the power of technology that two teens at opposite ends of the country could create an easy-to-use site to benefit people in need on the other side of the world.
He said he now hopes it will be possible to link efforts with agencies offering aid to Ukrainians.
“What’s happening in the world right now is really scary to watch,” he said. “People my age who were born after 9/11 have never witnessed anything like this.”
He said the scale of the crisis is daunting, and seemingly only becoming more dire.
“There have been more than 2 million refugees from Ukraine and it’s bound to get worse,” Schiffmann said. “They all deserve a safe place to stay.”