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Two Jewish Harvard freshmen launch ‘Ukraine Take Shelter’ to help refugees

Two years ago, Avi Schiffmann made headlines as the high schooler from Seattle who built one of the world’s first and largest COVID-19 tracking systems. Now a Harvard University freshman, he’s taking a semester off to apply his technical skills to another urgent cause: finding housing for Ukrainian refugees.

The 19-year-old created Ukraine Take Shelter, a website that matches Ukrainian refugees with hosts in neighboring countries and elsewhere.

Schiffmann — who received the 2020 Webby Person of the Year Award for his website — got the idea while attending a pro-Ukraine rally in San Diego in the first days of the Russian invasion. The show of solidarity was great, he said, “but I felt like I could do a lot more than hold an angry sign.”

When he got home later that night, he researched how government agencies and refugee aid organizations were responding to the massive humanitarian crisis.

Burstein's programming of the site was interrupted only by a midterm.

Burstein’s programming of the site was interrupted only by a midterm. Courtesy of Marco Burstein

Existing efforts to connect refugees to hosts, he concluded, were inefficient and hard to navigate. And so, the next morning, he called his friend from college, 18-year-old software developer Marco Burstein, and the two set out to create a safe, secure and user-friendly site as quickly as possible.

The two may draw comparisons to another young Jewish Harvardian who created an important website while an undergraduate. But where Mark Zuckerberg, who launched Facebook after creating an online “hot or not” game for Harvard students, saw himself as an entrepreneur, Schiffman and Burstein cast themselves as Internet activists.

“There is certainly a Jewish history of fleeing from oppression and crisis and moving to safety,” Burstein said. “I think that our trying to help refugees in Eastern Europe is pretty fitting.”

“We’re trying to inspire other Jewish teens to do cool stuff with technology, I guess,” Schiffmann added.

Using FaceTime to collaborate while thousands of miles apart from one another, they worked almost nonstop for two days — though at one point Burstein paused to take a midterm.

And after testing their cybersecurity and showing their platform to potential users, they launched Ukraine Take Shelter on March 2.

With mounting military and civilian violence and more than two million people fleeing the war, and hundreds of thousands trapped without water, heat or natural gas, “there’s a desperate need to get this process of matching refugees to hosts done as fast as possible,” Schiffmann said. “In my opinion, our website is the best on the Internet for doing that.”

It takes little for hosts to sign up. They need provide only their city and contact information, but can also describe their offerings with categories for refugees to filter through, including the available space, proximity to transportation, spoken languages, pet restrictions and accommodations for people with disabilities.

The site asks refugees for the name of the city closest to them, but does not track their precise location. Users then connect with hosts, but not through the website, and can also report listings they believe to be inappropriate or dangerous.

A listing on the Ukraine Take Shelter website.

A listing on the Ukraine Take Shelter website. Photo by Avi Schiffmann

So far, more than 2,000 hosts have signed up. Schiffmann said he isn’t keeping track of the number of refugees who are using the tool. “The whole point of the website is to be a public bulletin,” he said, explaining that even if the platform was hacked — despite built-in protections against cyberattacks — no messages between hosts and refugees would be seen. “It’s much more secure that way.”

In the future, Schiffmann and Burstein hope to compile and share more resources to aid refugees, such as specific countries’ processes for accepting refugees.

They’re currently expanding the translations they offer for listings. Some help comes from people they know — including Burstein’s best friend from high school, his college dormmate and Schiffmann’s grandmother — and some from volunteers they’ve met on Twitter.

Schiffmann and Burstein themselves first met online, even before arriving on campus. Over the summer, Schiffmann was scrolling through Harvard’s Discord server and saw that someone had posted WhatClass, an app for Harvard students to find classes their friends were taking.

Looking for talented people to work with on cool projects, Schiffmann reached out to the creator of the website, Burstein, and on one of the first days of school, they got pizza in Harvard Square and hit it off.

“I remember talking to Marco about absolute nonsense, spewing my rants,” Schiffmann said.

“And the rest,” Burstein added, “is history.”

Both are computer science students who learned about web development from YouTube videos and Discord servers as children. “The Internet is our home, we’re digital natives,” half-joked Burstein, who in real life hails from Los Angeles.

Burstein, like Schiffmann, enjoys using technology to solve problems, such as when he wrote scheduling algorithms that his high school still uses. Schiffmann, in addition to the COVID-19 tracker, previously created a website that helped people find Black Lives Matter protests to join across the country.

Both see themselves as technophiles who use their skills for good.

With the ease of the Internet, “really anyone could be doing these things,” Burstein said.

But only “the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are those who do,” Schiffmann said.

Schiffmann won Person of the Year at the 2020 Webby Awards for his popular COVID-19 tracker.

Schiffmann won Person of the Year at the 2020 Webby Awards for his popular COVID-19 tracker. Courtesy of Avi Schiffmann

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