The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven more than 2 million people out of the country, the United Nations said Tuesday. Within Ukraine’s borders, millions of people have been displaced.
On Monday, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced an executive order directing city departments to take action to assist communities impacted by the invasion.
Watching it from across the world, two Washingtonians — one a teen from Mercer Island, the other a man from Bainbridge Island — asked themselves what they could do to help.
Their answers were vastly different: One started writing code; the other flew immediately to Poland.
Both are delivering goods and services, offering ways to help that are free of cumbersome red tape that sometimes slows conventional aid.
That’s the beauty of learning to code, said Avi Schiffmann, creator of Ukraine Take Shelter. Schiffmann said he learned to code through YouTube videos. It’s never been easier to create platforms that take away the middleman, he said.
The Mercer Island teen made headlines when he developed one of the first and largest coronavirus tracking websites, nCoV2019.live (work he credits for securing him a place at Harvard).
This month, he launched Ukraine Take Shelter with Harvard classmate Marco Burstein. The site is an independent platform connecting Ukrainian refugees with potential hosts in neighboring countries.
People seeking shelter do not need to fill out long forms but instead only have to enter the name of nearest city to call up a list of people willing to host refugees.
People who are willing to host refugees simply list the city they live in, how many people they can host and contact information. Hosts can also list other amenities like language abilities, first-aid skills, legal expertise and whether their home is pet-friendly, according to the Ukraine Take Shelter site.
“It’s like a stripped-down Airbnb on steroids,” Schiffmann said.
Schiffman said he got the idea for the public bulletin on Feb. 27 after attending an anti-Putin rally in San Diego.
“I thought, ‘This is great for the people who are at this protest, but what can I do for all the refugees fleeing into Poland and Moldova?'” he said. For three days straight, he and Burstein worked to launch the platform.
And now, he’s seeing thousands of refugees seeking shelter from folks willing to provide it through the site.
“It’s putting the power back in the hands of the refugees,” he said.
Across the world, at the border between Ukraine and Poland, Dale Perry of Bainbridge Island has been working feverishly to deliver first-aid kits, tents, blankets, food, water, diapers, formula and birthing kits to Ukrainians stuck behind the border.
Perry, who studied engineering and Russian at Dartmouth, worked in the energy field in the former Soviet Union for years, his wife Carol Coldren Perry said. Eight years ago, Dale Perry and his partner started their company, Energy Resources of Ukraine.
When Perry learned Russian troops were amassing at the border, he made reservations on the western side of Ukraine and in countries without visa requirements for his 30 or so employees, hoping to get them out, she said.
He arrived at the Kroscienko border checkpoint on Feb. 27 and learned that six of his 30 employees had made it out, but the others had not. Some were men between 16 and 60 and could not leave. Others wanted to stay with their families. Some were choosing to stay and fight, Carol Coldren Perry said.
“They know the stories of what it was like to live under Soviet rule and they want no part of it,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘Over my dead body.'”
On the Polish side of the border, people were opening their homes, giving rides and aid to the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, she said. But on the Ukrainian side, “there were thousands and thousands of women and children waiting in the freezing cold with no provisions.”
Perry, his partner and the five employees who’d made it to Poland began to buy supplies, which also include sleeping bags, air mattresses and medical kits.
“We found a company that had the products, we found people that had the vehicles, we took them to the border,” Perry told KUOW.
Perry said that because he and his crew had relationships with people in the area, they were able to bypass the dayslong lines at the border, transfer goods from a truck on the Polish side to a truck on the Ukrainian side and get provisions into people’s hands that day.
They were doing what global aid nongovernmental organizations weren’t able to do, he said.
So far, Perry and his partner have spent more than $2 million of their own money on the effort and are now asking for donations to help fill the needs. They will match every dollar donated, they said on their website: aid-for-ukraine.org. They are taking no administrative costs, they said; donations go directly toward immediate relief to people in Ukraine.
Perry is asking people to “step up,” though the established humanitarian groups and NGOs are beginning to arrive and set up outside Ukraine, Carol Coldren Perry said.
Because her husband’s team is still faster than the larger organizations, she said he expects the need for his team’s work and for donations to continue longer than he’d originally expected.