Mercer Island teen builds website to help Ukrainian refugees

Two years after he built a website tracking COVID-19 case data worldwide, Avi Schiffmann is putting his skills to use to help Ukrainian refugees.

MERCER ISLAND, Wash. — Two years after he built a website tracking COVID-19 data across the globe, Avi Schiffmann is putting his skills to use on another issue: The war in Ukraine. 

During his gap year from Harvard, Schiffmann is working on start-up projects, but he also found the time to build a website, UkraineTakeShelter, where hosts can offer their homes to Ukrainian refugees in need. 

Right now there are a few hundred listings on the website in places like Germany, Poland, Iceland and even in the United States. Schiffmann said he’s working with a team who is in contact with Ukrainians still living in the country who are helping to make sure the website is as easy to use as possible.

“One of the reasons I made the website in the first place is I felt if you are a stressed refugee literally running away from explosions and gunfire, are you going to go to some government website that’s filled with paragraphs and jargon? No, that’s ridiculous. Instead, you can go to my website and just immediately enter your closest city or your current city and you immediately see listings, you can contact these people,” Schiffmann said. 

“The whole point of the website is for it to just be like a public bulletin to aid in the discoverability of connecting refugees to hosts,” he said. 

When refugees are searching for a place to stay, they can use filters to select hosts who will allow pets, are kid-friendly, offer legal or elderly assistance, disability support and childcare support among several other options. Those looking for a place to stay can also search by language spoken in the household. 

“It’s really direct practical tools that are able to help people,” Schiffmann said. “It’s never been easier to go online, go on YouTube and just search like, ‘How do I code websites?’ and then get in any language you want, hundreds and hundreds of videos that just show you how to do every possible thing you could imagine.”

Schiffmann said he’s now trying to speak with media in Europe to spread awareness in countries refugees may be fleeing to. He said he’d also like to work with aid organizations and anyone with friends of family in foreign countries who can help him get the word out.

“There are already more than a million refugees that have left the country. It’s really impractical and unrealistic to expect [aid organizations] to be able to efficiently match refugee to host when there are so many of them,” he said. “So what I like about this website is it really puts the power back into the hands of the refugee where they’re able to take the initiative and just immediately go into the search bar and put in their city and these listings will come up.”

Schiffmann encourages people living in Seattle and elsewhere in the US to post listings as well, even though refugees are primarily headed to other European countries at the moment. 

“It’s worth it to just post your listing and maybe one day a refugee will end up here, there’s 40 million-plus people in Ukraine. As the war escalates people need to go somewhere,” he said. “I think it’s worth it to still post a listing and hope that eventually someone maybe will find it.”