Over the years I have written about many, many good people – some doing small things, others changing lives. But my favourites are the stories about young people doing good things, for those stories give us hope for the future. Today I have one such story that I hope you will enjoy … it is the story of a young man – well, two young men actually – with an idea that has led many others to become good people themselves!
I’d like to introduce you to this young man, Ari Schiffmann. Ari, age 19, is in his second year at Harvard University. He has taken this semester off and was in San Diego visiting family when one night in late February he attended a demonstration protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Later that night sleep would not come, so he lay awake in bed thinking.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about what I could do to help. I wanted to do something that would have an instant impact.”
But what? What did a 19-year-old college student have to offer the people of a war-torn nation? Schiffman suddenly sat up in bed with an idea: Make a website for Ukrainian refugees who needed places to stay in other countries. He put out a tweet.
He followed up asking for help from people who spoke other languages to translate the website into Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Czech and Romanian.
Then he texted his Harvard University freshman classmate Marco Burstein, an 18-year-old computer coding whiz, to ask if he could help him quickly develop a website. Burstein was 3,000 miles away in Cambridge, Mass., and had papers to write and classes to attend. Still, he was in, he told Schiffmann.
The pair worked almost nonstop from 3,000 miles apart, texting and on FaceTime to create a website that would be easy to navigate for people offering help and those seeking it.
On March 3rd — three days and only five hours of sleep later — they launched Ukraine Take Shelter, a site in 12 languages where Ukrainian refugees fleeing war can immediately find hosts with spare rooms, unused resort condos, mother-in-law apartments and school dormitories.
“If someone has a couch available, they can support a refugee. And if somebody has an entire house, they can put it on the site and support a whole family. What we’ve done is put out a super fast, stripped-down version of Airbnb.”
In the first week, more than 4,000 potential hosts around the world, including in the United States, have offered a place to stay through Ukraine Take Shelter, said Schiffmann, noting that the number of hosts grows each day. Here’s one example …
One host from the United States commented: “I have to ask myself, ‘If not I, who? If not now, when?’ I cannot stop this invasion, but my faith tells me now is my time to help others find safety and shelter.”
While most of the hosts who sign up live in countries surrounding Ukraine, Schiffmann and Burstein have seen offers from as far away as Israel and Canada. In some cases, the hosts are even springing for airline tickets to get families to safety. Says Marco Burnstein …
“The number of new hosts we’re getting every day is mind-blowing, and we’re seeing immediate results in how the website is making a difference. It’s literally saving lives for people in a terrifying situation. We’re really thankful for the real volunteers or the people hosting their homes for all these refugees. We’ve heard incredible stories.”
As of March 17th, the website had more than 1 million active users! Both Burstein and Schiffmann said they see their project as a public bulletin board offering something for everyone who is packing up whatever they can carry and fleeing Ukraine.
“We found that existing sites run by governments to help refugees were clumsy and full of complicated jargon. You submit something into a black box and just hope that somebody will read it and help you. Somebody running away from explosions and gunfire is under stress and needs something that is more straightforward and easy to use.”
On the Ukraine Take Shelter website, refugees type in their current locations and dozens of host offers pop up from the closest towns in neighboring countries, Burstein said. They can also specify the number of people who need shelter and whether they have pets or family members with special needs. Wrote one volunteer host …
“I am a medical student, as is my boyfriend and we live in a one-bedroom apartment in the center of Kaunas, Lithuania. As of such we can only offer our couch in the living room with free food, supplies and anything else that is necessary. We don’t have any kids and could babysit as well.”
Some hosts don’t have room for more people, but they’re offering assistance for pets.
“We are offering a temporary place for one dog. We are living in an apartment building, but with a lot of green areas and dog parks next to us. Your dog will have food, care, a bed and long walks!”
My hat is off to these two young men who started the ball rolling, but also to the many people who have opened their homes and their hearts to help the people of Ukraine. And to think … it all started with a sleepless night! I wish my sleepless nights were that productive!!!