Mercer Islander and Harvard classmate launch website to help Ukrainians in need of shelter

After attending a February 28 protest in solidarity with Ukrainians during the Russian invasion, Avi Schiffmann wanted to raise his level of helping others.

Mercer Islander, 19, and his Harvard University classmate Marco Burstein have teamed up to help Ukrainian refugees by creating an independent platform connecting them with potential hosts in neighboring countries.

Computer science students launched March 2.

On the secure website – which is natively translated into Ukrainian, Polish and a plethora of other languages ​​- hosts can list information such as available space, transportation, first aid, languages ​​spoken, custody children, disability support, legal assistance and more.

“Refugees can search easily with comprehensive filtering and quick search results. We prioritize displaying the closest hosts that best match their needs. Additionally, users can flag inappropriate listings or share links to entries with others,” reads an email from Schiffmann.

After the protest, Schiffmann returned home and struggled to research which organizations could help Ukrainians reach the sanctuary, and found that there was a lack of communication between agencies and citizens.

Schiffmann reached out to Burstein the next morning over a video call, and after a discussion of the idea, their website coding, design, and programming began and went two to three days without sleep. Burstein, 18, walked away from the draft to take a midterm but was back in action just after returning home. Schiffmann, who attended Harvard for a semester and is currently taking a break from school, continued to work on the site uninterrupted until the end.

“We found that existing efforts to connect refugees to hosts were extremely inefficient, not scalable, and difficult to sort out quickly. Our goal was to create a site that was intuitive, secure, safe and useful,” Schiffmann wrote in a press kit, adding that he lives in San Diego and Burstein was at Harvard when the website was designed and launched.

Schiffmann said they were trying to get the site talked about in the media in the United States in hopes that people would pass the information on to Ukrainian and Polish news outlets, which he said were not responding quickly to the need for information. ‘shelter. They worked with user experience research teams who interviewed Ukrainians in need and referred them to the site.

“It’s been going well, we now have over a thousand listings worldwide, which is pretty crazy. It’s like doubling every 12 hours,” Schiffmann said in a March 7 interview with the Journalist.

In a separate interview with the Journalist on March 7, Burstein — who is originally from Los Angeles — said he immediately agreed with Schiffmann when he pitched the idea.

“I think it’s amazing. I’m really glad I got to work with Avi on it,” said Burstein, who previously worked on more localized projects with her high school, “But really nothing that seemed to have such a global focus.”

At Harvard, Burstein and his classmates follow the situation between Ukraine and Russia and discuss it on campus. He is therefore delighted to help make a difference for people on the other side of the globe.

“It’s one thing to stand up and talk and hold a sign and do all those sorts of things, but I think what’s really cool these days is this whole new concept of what I did,” Schiffmann said. “It’s more digital activism, where I can build a website or a tool or an app or something – it’s a direct and practical use case for people on the ground in the region .”

Schiffmann, an internet activist who founded and developed one of the first and largest coronavirus tracking websites,, added: “Looking to the future, we hope to compile more resources that would help refugees, such as countries currently accepting refugees. and what their processes look like.

During his hiatus from Harvard, Schiffmann is enjoying his freedom to work on his plethora of digital projects while staying in “hacker houses” with other like-minded people. Upcoming trips to Barcelona and Amsterdam are on his program to deepen his work.

“I’m primarily good at just seeing opportunities and gaps and just like filling those gaps and just making useful products,” Schiffmann said, noting that his COVID-19 site was used by hundreds of millions of people around the world. whole world.

The current situation in Ukraine and Russia weighs heavily on Schiffmann’s mind. He said he had five nationalities, some of them in Europe.

“It’s really crazy that there is a war in Europe that I’m afraid I’ll be drafted into if things get worse,” he said.

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