Island teen helps Ukrainians find refuge

March 10, 2022 | by Naomi Tomky

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Photos courtesy Ukraine Take Shelter

Mercer Island teenager Avi Schiffmann doesn’t wait around for things to get better. After attending a rally in support of Ukraine in late February, just a week into the Russian invasion of the country, he went home to research how he could support the people affected. “I realized that there was a severe lack of communication between organizations and individuals seeking help,” says Schiffmann in the press materials of the website he then created to solve that problem, Ukraine Take Shelter.

“Government websites were far too complex to navigate, especially in a stressful and timely manner,” he explains. The lack of accessible, simple information for large audiences in crises is not new for Schiffmann: two years ago, as a high school student, he saw the coming Covid-19 crises months before the U.S. began shutting down and created to track the cases worldwide in “an unbiased and user-friendly way,” without any ads. It quickly became one of the most popular sites for people seeking data in difficult times, with hundreds of millions of people using it.

But while the data he collected about the pandemic served solely to inform, Ukraine Take Shelter moves one step forward, offering a solution to the problem at hand – or at least one facet of it. Schiffmann and Marco Burstein, a friend of his from Harvard, where he started college last year, designed the site in just 24 hours, launching on March 2nd after going through native language translations and cybersecurity checks.

Avi Schiffmann (left) and Marco Burstein (right) at Harvard

Potential hosts or host organizations can sign up with a listing of where they are, how many people (and pets) they can host, and any additional information or skills they have, plus their contact info. Then users can open the page, type in their location, quickly see the nearest options, and filter to what they need. The current listings around Germany, where many of the refugees are headed include rooms for a mother and child, foster care for cats, and even a three-bedroom apartment. Each room includes the languages spoken by the hosts, as well.

The listings grow each day, and the site continues to improve as Schiffmann and Burstein add additional features including translating it into more languages, showing the distance from the refugee in each listing, and eventually adding more information regarding countries open to Ukrainians fleeing the invasion. But even just one week into the project, Schiffmann has once again shown the world how one person and a simple website, designed for wide use and to do one thing well, can try to solve the major issues facing humans.