Close to 4 million people have fled Ukraine, but so far there are few tent cities on the country’s borders. The refugee crisis has been met, at least initially, with a surge of support, such that one of the most pressing problems is connecting people who want to offer help with those who need it.
Two Harvard students, Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein, designed Ukraine Take Shelter as a way to pair refugees with rooms. They knew that there were people willing to offer help to Ukrainian refugees, but that they might have trouble connecting to people in need. Ukrainian refugees were simply trying to get out, as quickly as possible, and could easily end up in a town where they knew no one. Some people even turned to Tinder, because it let them connect to locals, to ask for help in a new place.
Flipping through the postings in different cities, I saw notes from people who had taken a look at their home and had asked how it could be different, whom else it could shelter. One person in Warsaw, Poland, wrote, “We have a 2-bedroom apartment and a 16-month-old son. We will move our son into our bedroom.” Another Polish person wrote that they had a dog, and would be willing to host up to three dogs along with their owners.
As far afield as New York City, people added their names, with one person offering to share their studio apartment, writing, “The couch isn’t a foldout, but I’ll just get an inflatable mattress, no big deal. I’m sure I can do longer than one week if necessary.”
When need comes knocking, it changes the way we see the world around us. A spare room, an extra set of towels, the clothes at the bottom of the drawer that rarely get worn, each of these superfluities make our everyday life feel a little more spacious. We have some wiggle room in our own home, with our own possessions, to not worry about running out. But each “extra” also poses a question: Can I hold onto this for my own comfort when someone else has a greater need?
A pair of friends I know in Washington, D.C., have always made sure to budget so that they can afford an apartment with a guest room. They wanted to always be able to say “yes” to someone who needed a long-term place to stay on short notice — the kind of prolonged stay that would be hard to sustain if your guest were on your living room couch. They wanted to be able to make it imaginable that someone they knew could leave an abusive relationship, quit an exploitative job, come to a new city to look for work.
Their room wasn’t always in use, but I met some of their long-term guests when I came over for dinner. They talked about their choice in part to inspire others, and in part so that friends knew that their door was open. We were the ones who might bring someone to their door, someone who didn’t know them, except for their willingness to offer shelter.
Those friends offered an answer to what it means to have “extra” in a world where others are in need. Their extra space was the result of deliberate sacrifice and savings, and they never thought of it as “their” room, but as a room that they held in trust for others.
In the middle of a crisis, the people volunteering on Ukraine Take Shelter have stepped up. But, as my friends know, there are quieter emergencies all around us. We have to find our own ways of inviting need in. Mutual aid societies, which have expanded during the Covid pandemic, are one way to know your community better. Knowing the specific needs of the people around you makes it easier to look at what you own and decide to give it away.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers that Even I Can Offer” and runs two Subtacks: Tiny Book Club and Other Feminisms.