Ukraine Shelter is a web portal launched amidst the chaos and confusion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the first version of the site launched on the 26th of February 2022. Since then the project has grown and grown, and today they are a sizable team of volunteers, all committed to helping Ukrainians find a safe place to stay away from the dangers and chaos of the war.
Ian Bearder, one of the initiators joins us for an interview and talks about his experience with launching the platform and making it multilingual with Localazy.
🕊️ The Story 🔗
Hi Ian and thank you for joining us today. Can you remember when exactly did you get the idea for Ukraine Shelter?
To be honest, I don't remember the exact point when we had the idea. It was in the very first days of the invasion when we were in shock and unable to sleep. However, we launched the website on the 26th of February - day two of the invasion.
What made you feel compelled to help with the recent humanitarian crisis in Ukraine?
Although I am British, I have lived in Kyiv for the past 12 years, and the project is a collaboration with my Ukrainian fiancee and our Ukrainian designers and developers. While launching the project, we were simultaneously looking for shelter for our team, so it all seemed logical.
You have quite an interesting background. Why did you decide to settle in Ukraine and start a company there?
Before I settled in Ukraine, I traveled to all 49 countries in Europe to win a bet. In 2009 I fell in love with Kyiv and haven't been able to leave. It really is Europe's greatest city …and I've visited a lot! 💙💛
Can you tell us some numbers about Ukraine Shelter? How many people are you helping at the moment? How has the situation evolved over the last few weeks?
In the early days, we were getting more hosts than requests. This was understandable as Ukrainians were too busy traveling and trying to understand the situation, and when they arrived in Poland, Slovakia, Moldova, etc., those countries did a great job providing temporary shelter.
Then the number of requests started to increase, and people were ready to move to countries which are further away, Germany, Denmark, Italy, etc.
We now get about 50-100 requests per day, and to date, we have had 3,110 requests for help. We have 1342 registered hosts.
How is your organization funded? Do you have a team of volunteers?
We're 100% funded by donations. Some people donated directly but most offered small monthly payments via patreon.com.
This money is used to cover expenses (phone bills, facilities, travel, etc.), and volunteers provide everything else. Our designers and developers work on the software for free, and the Call Center is run by an amazing team of Ukrainians - all volunteers.
In addition to this, we have been supported by vendors like Localazy and Fibery, who generously provided their software and support for free. I cannot emphasize how helpful this was. Because they moved quickly and decisively, we were able to move quickly too. That's super-important when you have hundreds of suddenly homeless people calling you for help.
How quickly did you manage to get the first people on the platform?
We have 59 hosts by the end of day two and the first requests a few days later.
It is heartwarming to see locals of neighboring countries helping refugees get the security they need during this humanitarian emergency. Are there any stories you'd like to share?
I'm extremely proud of everyone who has helped with Ukraine Shelter. Our donors and supporters, our volunteers, and our developers have all been amazing. However, I'm especially grateful to our hosts.
For example, take Andras in Hungary, who has hosted multiple families, meeting them even when they arrive late at night and providing hot food and shelter until they are able to move on.
This is just one example, and hosts have been providing similar hospitality across Europe. You can read some more stories on our Patreon.
Is any technology helping you in the cause? I see you're using Trello for border info, for example.
Yeah, unsurprisingly, as a tech company, we reached for all the tools we know and love - Trello for collecting/publishing notes/cards and Localazy to manage our translations, etc.
Also, as mentioned earlier, a company called Fibery has helped us build our backend systems, and that was a complete game-changer. Another company (Freedom-ID) also stepped in to help us verify our hosts, and this is also massively important.
What are the biggest risks & challenges for Ukraine Shelter in the current landscape?
I can't really say there are risks for Ukraine Shelter. We're just a group of volunteers doing our best to help people. There are obvious data security and privacy issues that we need to take care of, but we have pretty good systems in place to protect our data.
My biggest worry is for our guests and those who need shelter. They are the ones who are most at risk, and we are very concerned that criminals or people traffickers might exploit the current situation to abuse people.
For this reason, we are in the process of verifying the ID of all hosts, and we provide additional security advice to the Ukrainians seeking shelter. We also contact all hosts ourselves and track whenever we connect hosts and guests.
⛑️ Ian's thoughts 🔗
Personally, how is the nonprofit experience impacting you?
To be honest, I don't really think about it. I've helped run a nonprofit organization called Runday in Ukraine for the past six years, so it's quite similar. As a company owner, I'm also used to organizing teams around specific goals.
Also, Ukrainians have been looking after me and helping me for the past 12 years - so I'm happy to return the favor.
Are you working on any additional initiatives right now?
Yeah, too many! My company (Veedoo.io) is working with some fantastic clients - including Ukraine's only suicide prevention hotline - Lifeline Ukraine. We're also building and about to launch a global running platform called Everyrun. This is actually how we found Localazy.
Do you think that companies (big and small) could do more to help Ukrainian refugees? How is the response being in your sector?
A lot of individuals and businesses have stepped in to help. It's been quite amazing to see blue and yellow appear on almost every logo and website that I visit, and companies and communities across the world have self-organized to collect and deliver all kinds of aid to Ukraine. From software to body armor, there has been a lot of support for Ukraine.
But there is definitely more that could be done. For example, despite the months of detailed warnings about the risk of conflict, I don't see much evidence that the largest international institutions had actually prepared for it. Still, six weeks into the conflict, Ukraine Shelter is being inundated with requests for help and support (there is a massive problem), but we have had absolutely no help from the large NGOs and governmental bodies that should be taking care of things.
I mean, you only have to look at the UK visa scheme to see how badly prepared governments were and still are.
Will you keep doing nonprofit work and sponsoring social initiatives once this crisis is (hopefully) over?
Yes, absolutely. I dream of the day when Ukraine Shelter is no longer needed, and we can all go home. After that, we will focus on Runday and relaunching our weekly events in Kramatorsk, Severodonetsk, and eventually Mariupol.
Do you think the drive for social work is something people are either born with or not? Is this crisis sparking an interest in helping others?
That's a tough question. I do think it depends on the social/cultural traditions of specific groups and communities. Volunteering and charity work isn't so big in former communist countries where the state was expected to provide everything, or worse, where they forced people to 'volunteer.' In the USSR, for example, they had 'Subbotniks' - people forced to volunteer on a Saturday. So, it can be a bit of a dirty word.
However, since 2014 I've seen so many social movements pop up in Ukraine and then Belarus. I think everyone has the capacity to self-organize when they need to. We're not special.
🚩 Why Localazy 🔗
What role did Localazy play for you in this emergency? How did the cooperation work?
I've maintained enough websites in my time to understand that multilingual websites can be a nightmare. You probably need to be a webmaster to fully appreciate the complexity and amount of work that I'm talking about, but anyway - it sucks. So, when we decided to build Everyrun, I was adamant that we would use a translation framework to ease the pain.
That's when I found Localazy, and they helped us build a truly scalable multilingual platform. So naturally, we chose them when we launched Ukraine Shelter.
Then, in March 2022, our relationship went full circle, and they 'found' us. Out of the blue, I got an email from the CMO - Jakub - offering us a free upgrade so we could use the automatic machine translations. It was a generous and timely offer, and I'm extremely grateful to Jakub for the offer and to the Localazy team, who helped with some of the translations.
You've gone from 2 to 13 languages in just a few days. How was the process? Were you surprised by the help you got?
Well, I'm extremely lucky to have friends all across Europe (it's one of the best things about traveling so much), and when I put out a call for help on Facebook - they responded. In just a few days, we had volunteers helping with pretty much every language in Europe. It's been amazing.
Do you have any plans to expand the number of languages to get a global reach?
Eventually, yes, but this needs to be coordinated with changes to our team. The website is important because it lets us reach people in their native language. This is great, but ultimately we still need to talk to these people or communicate with them somehow. We need the right people and the right software to be completely successful.
🙏 How can you help 🔗
How can our readers help your cause?
- ➡️ Sign up as a host at ukraineshelter.com. There's no better way to help.
- ➡️ Become a patron! No matter how large or small, these monthly payments are the lifeblood of Ukraine Shelter and make everything possible.
Thank you, Ian, for your precious time.
It breaks our hearts to see what is happening in the regions affected by the conflict at the moment, but it is reassuring to see people like you take action and help in any way they can.
We wish all people in Ukraine affected by the conflict to stay safe & strong in these challenging times.