Tracy McCullough has no plans to travel any time soon, but within the span of about 24 hours, she booked accommodations with five Airbnb hosts, along with walking and cycling tours of multiple cities.
The London, Ont. hair salon owner is part of a global wave of people who have made tens of thousands of bookings, using the short-term rental platform to send financial support to Ukrainian Airbnb hosts in the midst of the Russian invasion.
Spurred by the humanitarian crisis that has unfurled around the country since late last month, McCullough has made other donations to World Central Kitchen and the Red Cross. But she says the Airbnb bookings — she’s spent more than $400 so far and says she’ll probably stop at $500 — have given her the chance to make personal connections with people in Ukraine.
“There’s something about being able to connect with an actual person in Ukraine and not only give them money, but tell them that you’re behind them and that you’re thinking about them on the other side of the world,” she said on Saturday.
It’s an approach to giving that has been fuelled by social media posts inspiring similar donations and extolling the benefits of giving directly to people living in a war zone. Others are making Etsy purchases from Ukrainian crafters and artists to offer support.
McCullough heard about the Airbnb idea Friday evening after her daughter sent her a screenshot of a Facebook post and quickly began booking stays in places such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa.
Alicia Omand, a Toronto marketing director, was similarly inspired by a co-worker’s post and paid for a one-night stay in one room of a house just outside Kyiv.
“You never know which charity to give to or how the money is going to be disbursed. You never know exactly who you’re helping or if there are admin fees involved,” Omand said. “That’s the thing that I like about this is that the money is going directly to them.”
In two days’ time this week, Canadians made Airbnb bookings for almost 3,000 nights in Ukraine, according to the company.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said on Twitter Friday evening that over the span of those 48 hours, people around the world booked more than 61,000 total nights in Ukraine, representing about $2.4 million (Canadian).
Airbnb is waiving booking fees for both guests and hosts in the country. (The company’s non-profit arm Airbnb.org has separately pledged to offer free housing on a short-term basis for up to 100,000 refugees from the country.)
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After going online to book a stay at some point in the near future, the non-travellers typically contact their hosts to say they’re not actually coming, but the money is.
Matt McNama, senior communications manager for Airbnb in Canada, said the idea of helping out Ukrainian hosts appeared to come in part from a social media post by a Twitter user with the handle @quentquarantino on Wednesday. By Thursday, it had taken off.
“The idea took shape from social media and it spread like wildfire to people who are wanting to help,” McNama said on Saturday.
McNama said while Airbnb has a team dedicated to ensuring its four million hosts worldwide are legitimate, there are a few steps people can take to make sure their money gets into the right hands.
“If you’re going to a Ukrainian listing, check out to see if they’ve been a host for a while, check out the reviews, see how many check-ins they’ve had — that will help you identify a reputable host.”
Canadians who have booked Airbnb stays in Ukraine told the Star that hearing directly from the hosts has been both gratifying and heartbreaking.
Olivera White, a partner manager at a software company and part-time photographer who lives near Guelph, Ont., said she and her husband began making bookings last week and have received grateful messages from Ukraine. In one case, however, she was still waiting to hear back 12 hours after reaching out.
“Not sure what to think, but there is unsettled feeling,” she said on Saturday over email from Serbia where she is visiting her parents. White herself fled the civil war in the former Yugoslavia to come to Canada in 1993 and said the situation in Ukraine hits close to home.
“Regardless of who is behind these actions and the whole messy politics of it, I support people who end up being victims in these cruelties. It is an unfair game, we feel the pain and need to do something about it.”
Canadians are also finding other creative ways to help. Barberian’s Steak House added perogies to its menu and says it will donate the proceeds, while Toronto marketing executive Christian Borys says he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars selling stickers and other merchandise with the Saint Javelin meme, a symbol of resistance in Ukraine.
For those looking to give through more traditional sources, Charity Intelligence Canada has prepared resources on how to make a smart donation to Ukraine and the Star has also compiled a list of ways to help.
Christine Dobby is a Toronto-based business reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @christinedobby
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