Harvard Freshmen Build Website to Help Ukrainian Refugees Find Housing

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Harvard students Marco Burstein, 18, and Avi Shiffmann, 19, are using their coding skills to help Ukrainian refugees find housing easier on their own, according to ABC News. After hearing about the difficulties Ukrainian refugees were facing finding housing through government and NGO websites, the two students worked endlessly for three days to build a website that would connect refugees with hosts easier and more quickly. UkraineTakeSheler.com launched in early March and has over 18,000 prospective hosts signed up for the service.

Burstein and Shiffmann have taken into great consideration the security of those using their platform. Through the website service, hosts are verified and list specifics including how many occupants they will accept and what languages they speak. According to ABC News, “to help avoid human trafficking and other hazards that vulnerable refugees face, the platform encourages evacuees to ask hosts to provide their full names and social media profiles, and request a video call to show what accommodations they’re offering.” UkraineTakeShelter offers a “detailed guide” to all refugees to help them check the person they are speaking with and make sure they will be the same person they meet. 


In an interview on the Harvard campus, Burstein shared that they have heard “all sorts of amazing stories of hosts and refugees” who have connected with each other through their platform. He added that hosts have volunteered from Romania and Poland to Canada and Australia. One host Rickard Mijatov from Sweden shared that he and his wife signed up with an embassy to host a family, but upon discovering UkraineTakeShelter chose to list with them as well. The morning after registering on their site, one refugee with one child and a pet responded to Mijatov’s listing. After video calls and background research, the hosts and refugees met, and though Mijatov explained that the experience was a bit “unnerving” at first, all is going well. 

Burstein and Shiffmann are working to arrange a meeting with officials from the U.N. refugee agency, and are hoping to connect with Airbnb, Vrbo, and other online home rental organizations. Right now, UkraineTakeShelter is being funded by the two new college students on their own as they are giving all they have to cover web hosting and the costs of Google Translate. They are seeking 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit organization so that they can apply for grants to further enhance their work. 


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