First Lady Jill Biden visits Ukraine on rare war zone trip

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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 an incumbent 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 for Mother’s Day,” Biden said before the start of a closed-door meeting between the two first ladies. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop, and this war was 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 US First Lady to come here during a war, when military actions happen every day, where sirens are going on every day, even today,” she said in Ukrainian through an interpreter. .

Biden’s unannounced visit came amid a four-day tour of Eastern Europe for the first lady – her most high-profile diplomatic engagement since President Biden took office and part of a broader effort to show continued support from the United States. USA to Ukraine.

For Biden, a trip to Ukraine – where she stopped in a country that neither President Biden nor Vice President Harris had visited during their recent trips to the region – reinforced the role she has played in the issue that has dominated and reshaped American foreign policy over time. over time. last three months.

And she did so by focusing on her priorities: education, military families, and mental health. A longtime educator, she visited schools in each of the three countries she traveled to, met with troops at a military base, and emphasized the need for mental health services for refugees during her humanitarian visits and briefings.

His visit to Ukraine came a day before Russia’s Victory Day, which some US officials fear will bring a new and even more violent phase of the war. It also followed further 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 the rubble and dead.

Past First Ladies have made visits abroad to support American troops stationed abroad, but few have visited an active war zone on their own. Laura Bush traveled twice to Kabul alone, in 2005 and 2008, and during the first trip, she met with women who were training to be teachers and gave gifts to Afghan children on the street.

The First Lady has no official constitutional duties and has largely played a ceremonial role. But in taking an active role in her husband’s presidency, Jill Biden is fulfilling a vision for the role she’s been contemplating for decades.

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

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

Her comments came on a forum in Des Moines when her husband was on his first presidential campaign. Now, nearly 35 years later, she has been a central figure in the White House, acting as a key fundraiser, a campaign surrogate — and now as a high-profile emissary to a war-torn country.

Biden has identified herself 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 going after her husband entered the White House – while continuing to teach at a community college – has made it clear that she, too, has a second job, which for now is trying to show empathy and understanding in the most dire of ways. circumstances.

She wore a mask decorated with a sunflower, Ukraine’s official flower, and during her 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 happening in Ukraine,” she said in March, launching a campaign for the midterm elections. “And I want you to know that he is working tirelessly to unite the people, to unite the NATO countries, so that they can stand up to Putin.”

Every morning, she recounted during a previous fundraiser, she turns on the television, praying that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is still alive. Each 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 resolve 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 just holding our breath, aren’t we? That something, some answer will come so that we don’t get into this world war.”

“It’s unbelievable, right?” she added. “To think that this could happen in our lifetime.”

His visit on Sunday with Zelenska follows correspondence between the two first ladies in recent weeks, said Michael LaRosa, a spokesman for the first lady. He said Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the US, gave Biden a letter from Zelenska at the March 1 State of the Union, which Markarova attended as one of Biden’s guests.

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 that is now being used as temporary housing 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, she said. LaRosa.

The two women then visited a classroom and sat at a table with children working on art projects for their mothers. The children were making paper and tissue paper teddy bears, which represent the symbol of the Zakarpattia oblast, where the school is located.

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

Biden’s visit came the same day Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau traveled to Kiev to meet Zelensky and Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, performed at a subway station turned bomb shelter in Ukraine’s capital.

Back in Wilmington, Del., Joe Biden joined other leaders of the Group of Seven in a video call with Zelensky. The leaders of the world’s biggest 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 gradual in reducing their heavy dependence on Russian resources. The leaders did not specify a timetable for the bans.

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

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 land,” she told Biden. “They kill us, but they say we protect you.”

Hugging her 7-year-old daughter Yulie, Kutocha described the difficulty of explaining to her children why they had to leave home. “It’s impossible,” she said. “I try to keep them safe. It is my mission.”

“It’s meaningless,” Biden said.

Biden began his trip in Romania, where he encountered troops at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base and visited a school in Bucharest that hosted Ukrainian children. On Monday, she is due to meet Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova in Bratislava.

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

“Perhaps this is Jill Biden’s call to meet with children who have had their education disrupted, their housing and basic needs and necessities disrupted,” said Katherine Jellison, an Ohio University professor whose research has 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 to continue teaching part-time if she became first lady, something she continues to do now.

“My personal opinion is that the First Lady must respond to the concerns and interests of American women today,” she said. “Women who are mothers, who are wives and who are salaried workers. Women who are struggling to balance the three roles. And I think they would identify with a First Lady who is also trying to balance those three roles.”

Viser reported from Washington.

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