19-year-old Harvard internet whiz builds website connecting Ukrainian refugees to hosts

The teenage internet activist who built a website to keep the world informed about the spread of the Covid pandemic has just launched a new website connecting Ukrainian refugees with hosts in neighboring countries.

After attending a demonstration in support of Ukraine following its invasion by Russia on February 24, Avi Schiffman19, decided he had to do something to help the more than one million refugees coming out of Ukraine.

With the support of fellow Harvard University classmate Marco Burstein and other volunteers who lent their computer and translation skills, Schiffmann launched UkraineTakeShelter.com on March 3. The secure site connects Ukrainian refugees looking for accommodation with hosts offering to accommodate them.

“I found what was there to help refugees find refuge was just too clumsy and slow. It was like filling out forms on government websites and waiting for a response,” Schiffmann told The Times of Israel in an interview from San Diego.

“There had to be something very simple and intuitive to use. The refugees are very stressed, confused and lost. There had to be something that reduced the clutter,” Schiffmann said.

UkraineTakeShelter.com primarily aims to find hosts for refugees in the countries immediately surrounding Ukraine’s western border: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Slovakia.

Ukrainian refugees are seen in a temporary shelter at the Ubla border crossing in eastern Slovakia on February 27, 2022. (Peter Lazar/AFP)

However, anyone in the world can access the site and offer refugees accommodation. The European Union has announced a plan allowing Ukrainian refugees to live and work in the EU for three years. Canada, home to the second largest Ukrainian diaspora outside of Russia, has created a Canada-Ukraine Emergency Travel Authorization that would allow an unlimited number of Ukrainians to enter and stay in Canada until at two years old.

Refugees can simply go to UkraineTakeShelter.com on their mobile phone or laptop and enter the nearest town to which they are located. A list of nearby hosts will appear. Hosts can be contacted at Telegram signal, WhatsApp number or website they provided on their listing.

Example of a host post on the mobile version of UkraineTakeShelter.com. (Screenshot)

Refugees do not create accounts on the site, but hosts must do so in order to enter information, make updates, or add a new post. Hosts can pause or reactivate a listing, and they are encouraged to mark listings as filled so that information on the site is up-to-date.

“A host can be a family of two or a university that can accommodate 50 people in a dorm. Aid organizations can also post to the site,” Schiffmann noted.

The site includes optional filters allowing hosts and refugees to designate specific information about the accommodation offered or sought. These include childcare, transportation, number of people, language, legal assistance or first aid and whether or not pets are allowed. Hosts can add additional comments or descriptions.

“We are going to add filters for religious preference and for gender preference. These are important for comfort and safety issues,” Schiffmann said.

Users can also report ads they deem inappropriate or dangerous.

Example of a search page from the mobile version of UkraineTakeShelter.com. (Screenshot)

Currently, the site is available in English and in native Ukrainian and Polish translations, which means that the site automatically appears in these languages. In the next 24 hours, the site will be translated into other languages, such as German, Romanian, Slovak, Russian and French. Schiffmann would appreciate the help of volunteers for translations into other languages, including Hebrew and Arabic.

Neither refugees nor hosts provide their exact locations for security reasons. Refugees and hosts also do not connect directly through UkraineTakeShelter.com to keep everyone safe.

“That way, there’s no record of conversations between refugees and hosts on the site in case it gets hacked,” Shiffmann explained.

He did, however, claim that state-of-the-art protections have been put in place for UkraineTakeShelter.com and that the site has been vetted by cybersecurity experts. Measures were taken against a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack and anti-web scraping technology was applied, among other precautions.

“I was mainly worried about the hacking of the site by the Russians. They carried out many cyberattacks during this war,” Schiffmann said.

He plans to expand this new website, turning it into a centralized hub for a variety of refugee resources by adding information such as which countries host refugees and how to apply for visas and asylum.

The new website UkraineTakeShelter.com by 19-year-old internet activist Avi Shiffmann helps Ukrainian refugees find hosts in other countries. (Courtesy)

UkraineTakeShelter.com is just another example of the young tech expert’s desire to do good. After creating his COVID tracking website (for which he won a Webby Award), he launched 2020protests.com, a website with centralized information about Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. Also in 2020, he created WhoTo.Vote, a website to fight misinformation and present the top issues of the 2020 US election in an unbiased and user-friendly way.

A passionate autodidact, Schiffmann feels more comfortable doing his own thing than sitting in a classroom. He finished his first semester at Harvard last fall and is now taking time off to pursue different tech projects. He travels to the United States and Europe, stays in “hacker houses” and enriches his already extensive network of mentors, colleagues and collaborators.

Avi Schiffmann (left) and Marco Burstein at Harvard, 2021. (Courtesy)

An aspiring entrepreneur and leader, Schiffmann acknowledges that he couldn’t get his projects off the ground so quickly (he only slept about five hours this week to get UkraineTakeShelter.com running) without relying on the support of others, including his friend Burstein, a talented coder.

Schiffmann focuses its attention primarily on Web3 and Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology. He is currently doing an internship researching patient user experience in BCI trials at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I’m 100% focused on what I want to do right now,” Schiffmann said.

The 19-year-old has big plans to launch big businesses and platforms. He wants to be “an inspiring person and a good leader”. He sees enormous possibilities for good things to come from the technologies being developed today. He studies ethics so he can be part of the effort to ensure that the leap forward in technology is done in the right way.

More immediately, Schiffmann saw a way to make a difference right now in the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands of desperate people.

“It was just about using technology in a practical way to help in these horrific circumstances,” he said.

About Jean R. Manzer

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