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How a digital activist group is helping earthquake survivors in Turkey and Syria find shelter



Five digital activists have created a website to help provide shelter to survivors of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey that left millions homeless amid freezing winter temperatures.

Just 48 hours after the earthquake reduced cities to rubble, Avi Schiffmann built TakeShelter, a site that connects displaced people with hosts around the world offering their homes as shelter.

“Tens of thousands of people are currently freezing in the winter cold without shelter,” Schiffmann, 20, told CNN. “TakeShelter is empowering those displaced by the earthquake, allowing them to find shelter now instead of waiting in the cold or in overcrowded relief centers.”

Around 50,000 people were killed after the February 6 earthquake, and more than 5 million people in Syria alone may be in need of shelter, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Schiffmann worked with four other software engineers – Krish Shah, Adrian Gri and Will Depue, 19, and Anant Sinha, 21 – to launch TakeShelter. The website was published by InternetActivism, a non-profit organization they founded to develop digital humanitarian tools, like websites and apps, “to help those affected by injustice, disaster and move”.

“Our generation often feels stuck between desperately wanting to help and feeling like we can’t do anything,” Depue told CNN. “I hope InternetActivism shows people how capable we all are of creating real change in the world. It just forces you to think a little differently. I’m so excited that we’re seeing real people finding shelter they need on our platform.

People who want to open their homes to displaced earthquake survivors can register on TakeShelter.org and post a public listing. Displaced earthquake survivors, in turn, can search the site for nearby host families.

In addition to advertising on social media, volunteers are on the ground finding displaced people and connecting them directly with hosts through the website. Other Turkish groups, activists and influencers are also promoting TakeShelter through social media and word of mouth, Schiffmann said.

More than 100 families displaced by the earthquake have already found refuge through the website, which has been translated into English, Turkish and Arabic, according to Schiffmann.

“We took great care in designing the site to be intuitive, as we understand that our users are often stressed, in a new location and in a rush,” said Schiffmann, who founded Ukraine Take Shelter a year ago. following the Russian invasion of its neighbor. This website has connected 100,000 Ukrainian refugees with hosts around the world, according to Schiffmann.

The images of the consequences of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey are imprinted in the mind of Mouaz Moustafa.

The Syrian-American humanitarian saw corpses, children living under trees, grieving families struggling to stay alive in freezing temperatures, and streets crowded with survivors, now homeless and with nowhere to go.

“Millions of people are still on the streets and they will freeze to death if they don’t have shelter,” he said. “The lucky ones have a tent, even if it’s a very bad tent. If they have at least one tarp, they’re in luck.

Moustafa launched the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) in 2011 to help Syrians displaced by the civil war find housing, education and medicine. Now the group has partnered with InternetActivism to launch TakeShelter, connecting homeless earthquake survivors with hosts through the website.

Rescuers search the rubble of buildings for victims and survivors in the village of Besnaya in Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib province on the border with Turkey.

“The partnership means we are able to help shelter Syrians who have been devastated by 12 years of war crimes and now the worst natural disaster in the history of Syria and Turkey,” Moustafa said. “Avi and InternetActivism working with SETF can help us leverage technology to help people the world has left to fend for themselves.”

When you combine a digital platform where anyone can register and a crisis involving compromised people in desperate situations, there is always a security risk.

International organizations such as the UN Refugee Agency have warned that refugees and other forcibly displaced people are “an easy target for traffickers, who take advantage of their precarious situation to exploit them”.

To mitigate risk and maintain the security of the website and the displaced people using it, hosts are subject to mandatory identity verification checks by taking a live photo of their government ID card, which moderators then check against a live photo of their face.

TakeShelter includes warnings on each listing to guide refugees on how to safely search for a host on social media, alert family and friends to who they are staying with, and how to recognize possible red flags. The site also provides local emergency numbers as well as the UN Refugee Agency’s hotline for immediate assistance.

“Avi and InternetActivism have an excellent security record and we at SETF ensure that anyone wishing to host presents the required documents,” Moustafa said. “Our teams on the ground are available to follow up in the event of a problem.”

A team of moderators regularly reviews each listing and reports malicious users to local authorities. Site users can also report ads.

As a Jewish person whose grandmother survived the Holocaust thanks to a family that secretly sheltered her, Schiffmann understands the long-term impact of sheltering vulnerable people.

“When I see lives being saved through our work, I like to think that it allows future generations to live on,” he said. “When people have a safe haven, they can focus on fixing their lives, finding new jobs, settling in new places, getting their kids into school. I hope TakeShelter empowers people to live full lives that they might not otherwise have had.

His quest to find ways to connect humanitarian aid with technology in the wake of disasters like the earthquake is what led him to meet his InternetActivism co-founders on social media. All five took a break from their universities to develop the association they launched in 2022.

“Our hope is that our work will serve as a model showing that anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can create a massive positive impact for their community. All you have to do is think creatively,” said TakeShelter software engineer Sinha.

The group’s goal is to create a suite of humanitarian tools – including TakeShelter – that are immediately ready in a crisis, rather than developing tools from scratch each time.

Although many people have given up on the news of the earthquake, the InternetActivism team says it will not slow down efforts to get as many survivors off the streets as soon as possible.

For those displaced by the earthquake, the first and most important step on their difficult journey to recovery is simply to stay alive. Without sufficient food, proper winter clothing, and safe shelter, each cold night they survive is considered a miracle.

In Syria in particular, where access to aid is severely limited and where other political dangers threaten the daily lives of citizens, “security is a low bar”, according to Moustafa.

“People in Syria are used to barrel bombs, chemical weapons attacks, heavy artillery, shelling, Russian shelling, ISIS, the list goes on of the vulnerability of these displaced people” , did he declare.

After witnessing repeated disasters in Syria, from airstrikes to starving children and the psychological ramifications of tragedies, Moustafa dreams of a world where people stop forgetting his country,

“They not only survived the worst humanitarian disaster in their country’s history, they suffered war crimes and were abandoned by the international community time and time again,” he said. “At the very least, we must provide them with humanitarian aid to help them survive, when many will not survive even one more day.

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