First Lady Jill Biden visits Ukraine on rare trip to war zone

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UZHHOROD, Ukraine — First lady Jill Biden crossed the border into Ukraine on Sunday, traveling to an active war zone in a rare move for the wife of a sitting president.

Biden entered the country from Slovakia on Mother’s Day and met Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska, who had not appeared in public since the Russian invasion began on February 24.

“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” Biden said before a closed-door meeting between the two first ladies began. “I thought it was important to show the people of Ukraine that this war has to end, and that this war has been brutal, and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Zelenska praised Biden “for a very brave act” in coming to Ukraine.

“We understand what it takes for the first lady of the United States to come here during a war when military actions happen every day, where aerial sirens happen every day, even today,” said she said in Ukrainian through an interpreter.

The unannounced visit came amid a four-day trip through Eastern Europe for Biden — his most high-profile diplomatic engagement since President Biden took office and part of an effort wider to show continued U.S. support for Ukraine.

For Jill Biden, a trip to Ukraine — stopping in a country neither President Biden nor Vice President Harris have visited on their recent trips to the region — has cemented the role she has carved out for herself. on the issue that has dominated and reshaped American foreign policy over the past three months.

And she did it by focusing on her priorities: education, military families and mental health. A long-time educator, she visited schools in each of the three countries she visited, met soldiers at a military base and highlighted the need for mental health services for refugees during her humanitarian visits and its briefings.

His visit to Ukraine came on the eve of Russia’s VE Day, which some US officials say will lead to an even more violent new phase of the war. It also followed fresh attacks in eastern Ukraine, where an official said Russian forces bombed a school that served as a shelter, leaving up to 60 people buried under rubble and feared.

Previous first ladies have made overseas visits to support US troops stationed overseas, but few have visited an active war zone on their own. Laura Bush has traveled to Kabul alone twice, in 2005 and 2008, and on the first trip she met women who were training to become teachers and gave gifts to Afghan children on the streets.

The first lady has no formal constitutional function and has largely played a ceremonial role. But by taking an active role in her husband’s presidency, Jill Biden is realizing a vision for the role she’s envisioned for decades.

In July 1987, she walked to a podium in Des Moines, stack of papers in hand, and looked around the packed room as she described what, in her mind, makes a good first lady.

“There is no specific good role,” she said. “But there is a goal: and that is to make Americans proud of their first lady and to feel that she is in some way a reflection of their lives and their values.”

Her remarks came as her husband ran his first presidential campaign. Now, nearly 35 years later, she’s a central figure in the White House, acting as a key fundraiser, campaign surrogate – and now as a high-level envoy to a war-torn country.

Biden has identified as a military mother, educator, and advocate for her husband, who often introduces himself not as the President of the United States but as: “Jill Biden’s husband.”

The only first lady to keep her professional career after her husband entered the White House – continuing to teach at a community college – has made it clear that she also has a second job, which for now is trying to show empathy and understanding in the most serious of circumstances.

She wore a mask adorned with a sunflower, the official flower of Ukraine, and during the State of the Union address she had the flower embroidered on the right sleeve of her dress.

“I talk to Joe every day about what’s going on in Ukraine,” she said in March, launching a campaign trail for the midterm elections. “And I want you to know that he works tirelessly to bring people together, to bring the nations of NATO together, so they can stand up against Putin.”

Every morning, she said at a previous fundraiser, she turns on the television, praying that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is still alive. Every night, sleep is not always easy.

“The phone never stops ringing, all night long,” she said. “And Joe is on his feet trying to help solve this crisis.”

The course of the conflict is impossible to determine, she said at a fundraiser in San Francisco in March.

“We just don’t know,” she said. “And we’re all holding our breath, aren’t we?” That something, an answer will come so that we don’t get into this world war.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it? she added. “To think it could happen in our lifetime.”

Her Sunday visit with Zelenska follows correspondence between the two first ladies over the past several weeks, said Michael LaRosa, a spokesman for the first lady. He said Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, presented Biden with a letter from Zelenska during the March 1 State of the Union address, which Markarova attended as guest of Biden.

Zelenska sent another letter to Biden in April expressing concern about the long-term effects the war will have on Ukrainian children, soldiers and families, LaRosa said.

Here in Uzhhorod, at a school currently used as temporary accommodation for displaced Ukrainians, the first ladies held a private meeting lasting about 30 minutes, during which Zelenska said the mental health of Ukrainians was her biggest concern. , LaRosa said.

The two women then visited a classroom and sat at a table with children working on art projects for their mothers. The children made teddy bears out of cardboard and tissue paper, representing the symbol of the Oblast of Transcarpathia, where the school is located.

Biden’s trip to Ukraine follows two high-profile visits by US leaders in recent weeks. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a congressional delegation to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky late last month, following a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Secretary to the Lloyd Austin Defense.

Biden’s visit came the same day Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau traveled to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky and Bono, the lead singer of rock band U2 who performed in a subway station-turned-air shelter anti-bombs.

Back in Wilmington, Del., Joe Biden joined other Group of Seven leaders in a video call with Zelensky. Leaders of the world’s largest economies announced on Sunday that they would phase out the use of Russian oil and gas. The United States has already banned Russian oil, gas and coal, but many European countries have been more progressive in reducing their heavy reliance on Russian resources. Leaders did not specify a timeline for the bans.

Before crossing the border, Jill Biden visited a bus station in Kosice, Slovakia, where local officials and non-governmental organizations have set up a refugee processing center. The First Lady heard moving stories of refugees who fled Ukraine but still expressed a strong desire to return to their home countries.

Victoria Kutocha, a mother of three whose husband stayed in Ukraine to fight in the military, told Biden about her trip to Slovakia and her outrage at Russia’s explanation for its invasion.

“They come to our lands,” she told Biden. “They kill us, but they say we protect you.”

While hugging her 7-year-old daughter, Yulie, Kutocha described the difficulty of explaining to her children why they had to leave their home. “It’s impossible,” she said. “I try to protect them. That’s my mission.

“It’s insane,” Biden said.

Biden began her trip in Romania, where she met troops at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base and visited a school in Bucharest hosting Ukrainian children. On Monday, she is due to meet Slovak President Zuzana Caputova in Bratislava.

But it was her unannounced trip to Ukraine on Mother’s Day that best illustrated how Biden sees her role as the country’s first lady.

“Maybe it’s Jill Biden’s call to meet children whose education has been disrupted, their homes and their basic wants and needs disrupted,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor at the University of ‘Ohio whose research focused on first ladies. “Maybe she sees it as an extension of her role as an educator.”

During Biden’s remarks in Iowa that day in 1987, she said she hoped she could continue teaching part-time if she became first lady, which she continues to do now.

“My personal view is that the first lady should address the concerns and interests of American women today,” she said. “Women who are mothers, who are wives and who are employees. Women who find it difficult to reconcile the three roles. And I think they would identify with a first lady who is also trying to balance those three roles.

Aim reported from Washington.

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