Border crossings and missile alerts: Volunteers create website with resources for Ukrainians fleeing the country

By Kamy Smelser, Staff Reporter

Elias Gonzalez

During a school day in rural Scotland, Benjamin McEwan said he was following the story on the crisis in Ukraine, and while at lunch he asked himself: “Is there anything I can do?”

After having a conversation with his friend James Kitching, he found a link in a Reddit thread Kitching created, which brought him to a Discord server for a tech initiative, TechForUkraine, and he shared it with his followers.

“After school, I went to check the server, and there were 200 people on it, so that was pretty amazing,” McEwan said. “I just wanted to do whatever I could.”

McEwan and Kitching are just two of the 498 contributing volunteers for TechForUkraine. These volunteers take on roles as developers, translators, social media coordinators and website scrapers who extract content from other websites and translate it into different languages.

Through the TechForUkraine initiative, the international team of volunteers developed with a goal to “fuel and organize the creation of software aimed at helping the Ukrainian people during the current war with Russia,” according to the LeaveUkraine website.

On the website’s homepage, users are given direct resources to locate border crossings and their wait times along with missile and air alerts using the Telegram app for the most recent updates. After subscribing to the Telegram channel, a user can receive alerts in nine different languages.

Una Hartzell-Baird, a media and translation volunteer for the TechForUkraine initiative, said the website was created with the intention of being “lightweight” so Ukrainians in low service areas or with slow internet connections can easily access the program regardless of where they might be while fleeing the country.

“Probably one of the biggest reasons we’re doing this is to try and get it into the hands of the people in Ukraine,” said Kelan Larkin, a volunteer and contributor from southern Utah. “That being one of our primary goals and also one of our biggest challenges.”

For Hartzell-Baird, joining the team to help those in Ukraine felt personal, as she came to the U.S. as a refugee from Bosnia when she was a child.

“It didn’t really feel much like a choice,” Hartzell-Baird said. “It felt more like a calling to be able to come in and do my part.”

Since Feb. 24, more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees have fled their home country due to the recent Russian invasion and attacks on Ukraine, according to the Operational Data Portal.

Jesse Jones Blair, a member of the media team from Idaho Falls, Idaho, experienced sleepless nights “scrolling and scrolling and scrolling” through social media on what was happening in Ukraine.

“I wanted to be able to do something, but there’s not an outlet. … You can give a financial contribution here or there, but there’s not a lot that you can do,” Jones Blair said. “So when [Larkin shared TechForUkraine], I think my exact words were, ‘Put me in, coach.’”

Pablo Bedolla, a first-year programming major at Columbia, joined the team as a contributor after coming across the link to the TechForUkraine Discord server on Reddit. Even as a full-time student, he said he uses his free time to help contribute to the team.

“I felt obligated to do something to help and contribute,” Bedolla said.

TechForUkraine has also received support from and partnered with the International Commission on Missing Persons, or ICMP. Hartzell-Baird said within this partnership, they will add a link on the LeaveUkraine website that directs users to the ICMP’s current research and a missing person reporting option. TechForUkraine also hopes to help the ICMP with translating their online resources into the Russian and Ukrainian languages to further help those in need of their resources.

Larkin said TechForUkraine aims to stay a strictly assistive organization and does not aim to cause any conflict with the current crisis.

“We’re not trying to attack anyone; we’re not trying to take down anything,” Larkin said. “We’re just trying to help the innocent.”