It’s late in San Diego, California, and Avi Schiffman can’t sleep. After attending a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the 19-year-old wants to help, but he doesn’t know how. He tosses and turns all night. The next morning, he calls his classmate, 18-year-old Marco Burstein, who’s on the other side of the country. As their conversation flows, a light bulb goes off. And that’s how, on March 3, the project Ukraine Take Shelter was born. The two teens created the webpage in just three days, and they hope for it to become instrumental in connecting Ukrainian refugees with hosts. Since it went live, the page has already attracted more than 10,000 hosts around the world. “It’s exciting. We’ve made something useful and people are using it,” the two youngsters explain via a video call.
It’s not the first time the young men have used their tech savviness to respond to a global crisis. In January 2020, before Covid-19 seemed like a real threat, Schiffman created nCov2019.live, which would become one of the major trackers of the pandemic – the page still receives 30 million visitors every day. Before turning 18, the student was recognized as “Person of the Year” by the Webby Awards, which are prizes for the world’s best websites. He turned down an offer of $8 million to add advertising to his website. “I don’t need it, there are much more valuable things than that,” he says from his room in San Diego.
Since then, he’s worked side-by-side with Burstein, whom he met at Harvard. After lots of video calls but little sleep, both admit that they knew “almost nothing” about Ukraine until a few days ago. “Its population [of 44 million] surprised us a lot. It’s a really big country,” they say.
Ukraine Take Shelter has a simple and intuitive interface, reminiscent of the online accommodation platform AirBnb. “The point is for it to be used by people who, unfortunately, are under high levels of stress. We can’t understand why the only solution should be filling out forms and infinite paperwork,” they say.
When refugees first open the website, they are able to enter their location and immediately receive offers from hosts in nearby cities. They can specify the number of people who seek asylum, or search by any filter imaginable: age, length of stay, medical needs, transportation, pets and more. “We want it to be really easy to use,” Schiffman says.
During the development phase, both students were sure to make the site as secure as possible. The rumors of a possible hack by Russia quickly emerged. “That was one of the threats that we were counting on from the beginning,” they say. They have reinforced the portal against cyberattacks, and they also verify users’ data in order to avoid fraud. “The algorithm punishes any suspected automated activity, so there’s no room for bots on the site.”
Only three days passed between the call when they conceived the idea and the page’s completion. During that period, neither of the pair slept more than five hours total. “We ate without stopping our work. I used my only break to take one of my Harvard midterms,” Burstein explains.
One of the page’s great advantages is that anyone can volunteer to be a host. “Anyone who has a free space is welcome, whether it’s a mattress or an entire apartment,” Schiffman says. Currently, the countries with the most offers are all in Europe. “France and Germany have a lot of users, but Spain is also close. People from all corners of the planet are joining. It’s incredible to be able to help despite being thousands of kilometers from the conflict.”
The two boys haven’t seen each other in person for months. “We live in a fully digital world. A project like this would have been impossible a few years ago,” they say. But they deny that their youth has been a significant factor in their success. “Today you can learn anything online. Age isn’t an obstacle for anyone,” Schiffman insists. “Everything I knew about programming before entering Harvard I learned on YouTube. If you know how to ask the question, you’ll always find the answer.”
When we can use our brains to write as fast as a computer, the possibilities will be infiniteAvi Schiffman
When asked where they see technology in 10 years, both smile nervously. “The future has possibilities that seem impossible to us today,” Burstein says. Schiffman notes how much progress remains to be made in fields such as genetic engineering, augmented reality and brain connection. “When we can use our brains to write as fast as a computer, the possibilities will be infinite.”
Until then, they prefer to think about the near future. The page has continued to grow, surpassing 100 million views, and Schiffman and Berstein are working tirelessly to continue to develop it. Ukraine Take Shelter is now available in a dozen different languages. “Right now we’re focused on polishing all the bugs and adding updates that improve the user experience.” Most recently, they have made it compatible with Viber, the most popular messaging application in Eastern Europe.
Last weekend, a woman from the Netherlands contacted Schiffman to ask him how to remove her home from the platform, but her reason for doing so was a positive one: this week, an entire Ukrainian family will be arriving at her apartment. Two days ago, Marta and Piotr, a young couple in Warsaw, took in a woman and her seven-year-old son thanks to the site. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Schiffman and Burstein are catching up on sleep. “It’s a real surprise. The idea worked,” they say.