First lady Jill Biden spent part of Mother’s Day making an unannounced trip to Uzhhorod, Ukraine, a small city in the far southwestern corner of Ukraine, a country that for the last 10 weeks has been under invasion by Russia.
At a converted school that now serves as temporary housing for displaced citizens, Biden met with Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, who has not been seen in public since the start of the war on February 24.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” Biden said to her Ukrainian counterpart, the two women seated at a small table in a classroom of a former school that is now a source of temporary housing for displaced Ukrainians, including 48 children. “We thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people this war has to stop. And this war has been brutal.” Biden added, “The people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Zelenska, who early on in the Russian invasion sent a letter to Biden, has exchanged correspondence with her American counterpart in recent weeks, US officials tell CNN.
“First of all, I would like to thank you for a very courageous act,” said Zelenska, speaking through an interpreter to Biden. “Because we understand what it takes for the US first lady to come here during a war when the military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day, even today. We all feel your support and we all feel the leadership of the US President but we would like to note that the Mother’s Day is a very symbolic day for us because we also feel your love and support during such an important day.”
The meeting of the two women included a closed-door bilateral, which lasted for about one hour and took place at what was a school before the war. The building has been transformed into a refuge, a collaboration between the government of Ukraine and the International Organization for Migration, the UN migration agency. Dozens of internally displaced persons now live in the building, on a leafy property near the city center of Uzhhorod.
Biden, who is three days into a four-day visit to Europe to spend time with refugee families in Romania and Slovakia, traveled about 15 miles into western Ukraine from the Slovak border town of Vysne Nemecke to Uzhhorod.
The first lady is the latest high-profile American and the first family member of President Joe Biden to visit the war-torn country in recent weeks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv last month; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was there last Saturday.
The first lady has spent the last two days in Europe meeting with humanitarian aid organizations and government officials in both Romania and Slovakia, as well as interacting with displaced Ukrainians in both countries, her focus primarily on the health and emotional welfare of women and children.
Biden’s visit to Ukraine is the first time a United States first lady has visited a war zone since Laura Bush made a secret, 10-hour visit to Afghanistan in 2008. Bush made her first visit to that country, an active combat zone, in 2005. Both of Bush’s visits centered around her interest and support of Afghan women.
As second lady in 2010, Jill Biden accompanied then-Vice President Joe Biden on a trip to Baghdad, Iraq, over the July 4 holiday.