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The Internet Bringing People Together During the Russia-Ukraine conflict

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at American chapter.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Putin declared a special military operation in Ukraine. Since then, already more than three million people have fled Ukraine, reports CNN. This “military operation” quickly turned into a disastrous war, which has created inhumane living conditions for those who remain in Ukraine. In response, people around the world are taking action to help Ukrainians find safety in other countries.

Two Harvard University students, Avi Schiffman and Marco Burstein, stood out for creating an online platform to connect Ukrainians to hosts anywhere in the world willing to offer them a safe place to stay.

It took them three days of almost nonstop work to design and build the website Ukraine Take Shelter, which was launched on Mar. 3, 2022.

On Mar. 20, CNN reported, “To date, there have been more than one million users on Ukraine Take Shelter and over 25,000 listings.” 

This website gives people in Ukraine fast access to safe shelters, which they would otherwise have a very difficult time finding. Peoples’ homes are being destroyed by the bombings in the middle of the cold Ukrainian winter, making it essential to take advantage of technology to help those in Ukraine who’s lives are at stake. 

People can access the website and insert a nearby location to find a list of hosts in that area. They can then directly contact the host, and remain in contact until they are able to reach them. Safety measures are provided on the website, such as what questions to ask hosts and what red flags to look out for when searching through listings.

Strong safety efforts have been put in place by the designers of the website to reduce the possibility of hosts looking to take advantage of people fleeing the crisis. The founders assure that they have made the website extremely hard to hack, as well as ensuring the location of the users is not traceable to further protect refugees’ safety.

People are rushing on the site to offer whatever they can to those in urgent need of assistance. Hosts usually try to offer a place to sleep, which sometimes may only be a mattress on the floor, as well as providing them with other basic necessities such as food for as long as they stay. Details are provided on the website, such as whether the hosts are able to help provide transportation to the refugees and what languages the hosts speak. The website itself is translated in many languages so that more people can access it. 

Hosts have expanded from Eastern Europe to people in France, the Netherlands, Iceland and even the US to offer shelter to those in Ukraine who want to flee, according to Business Insider.

A similar initiative was taken up by Airbnb, the online marketplace for vacation rentals and homestays. People from around the world are able to use the site to rent out Airbnbs in Ukraine, without plans of staying there. Booking payments are made directly to Ukraine Airbnb hosts. It has become a form of donation to Ukrainians, who for the most part have lost any form of income revenue due to the war. In fact, renting out Airbnbs was the primary source of income for many people in Ukraine. However, in most cases, these places to stay no longer exist, affecting the lives of both those who owned them and the people they supported financially. 

As buildings are being bombed and the lives of people in Ukraine are being completely uprooted, these Airbnb “bookings” offer a way for former hosts to still receive money. According to NPR these bookings have already amounted to over 2 million dollars. 

A Ukrainian student in the School of Communications at American University, Karolina Vainshtein, brought attention to the significant impact of the conflict on family members of Ukrainians living abroad. Vainshtein provided some important insight into the less known realities of the conflict, such as the difficult decision of some to remain in Ukraine. From an outside perspective it is easy to minimize the difficulty of leaving your homeland, your house and your family behind, regardless of the magnitude of destruction going on in it. 

“All of my family members are there [in Ukraine] right now…because in Ukraine, because of everything that is going on with the military they do not allow men to leave the country unless you are older than 61 and so my dad he is 60 so he can’t leave,” said Vainshtein. “And my female family members, they can leave, but obviously they don’t want to leave their husbands or like brothers. It is hard and that’s why they are all there.”

But, as she highlights, it is not easy to watch your home be destroyed with little to do about it. However, Vainshtein uses her social media platform to raise awareness about the conflict and to mobilize efforts from abroad to help the people in Ukraine. 

Vanshtein, the young Ukrainian model, with an instagram following of 48.3K has done everything within her power to gather support for Ukraine. She has set up a donation link at the very top of her instagram page, where her followers, or anyone who accesses her account, can easily click and donate to Save The Children of Ukraine. So far, donations have amounted to $220,614, her target total being $225,000. 

“You feel really guilty for being in a safe place because your friends and your family they are going through a nightmare and you are just being like in a safe place so you want to help them but the only thing you can do is like donate, talk to them, support them, but you can’t physically be there,” said Vanshtein.

Something social media has been known to do very well is to bring people together, and as its power continues to grow, for good and for bad, we are seeing how great a tool it can become when people choose to use it for good. Ukraine Take Shelter, Airbnb and meaningful activism through social media are only a few of the ways in which new technologies can help us mitigate the effects of conflicts and international crises. 

Flavia Marroni

American '24

Flavia is a junior at American University majoring in International Relations with a minor in French. She is from Rome, Italy, but is now living in DC, and is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish. Flavia is currently a contributing writer for HCAU, focusing on gender equality and women's rights.