WASHINGTON – First lady Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to Ukraine on Sunday, meeting with the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, as Russia continues to attack the country.
Biden crossed into Ukraine at Uzhhorod, visiting a school that is being used as temporary housing and shelter for 163 displaced Ukrainians, including 47 children.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day. I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop, and this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine,” Biden said.
The visit was among Biden’s last stops of a Mother’s Day weekend trip to the region. She spent time with U.S. troops in Romania and met with displaced Ukrainian refugees in Romania and Slovakia. Biden’s trip to Ukraine also comes one day before Russia will celebrate its Victory Day, the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany.
Biden greeted Zelenska with a bouquet of flowers and a hug. The two first ladies have exchanged correspondence in the past few weeks, according to a pool report. This is the first time Zelenska has appeared in public since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24.
Biden spent roughly two hours in Ukraine, where she held an hourlong private meeting with Zelenska and went on to meet with children who were sheltered at the school.
Zelenska said Biden’s visit to Ukraine is a “very courageous act.”
“Because we understand what it takes for the U.S. 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,” Zelenska said, according to a translation provided to reporters.
Zelenska said that Ukraine feels supported by the United States and by President Joe Biden.
“We all feel your support and we all feel the leadership of the U.S. 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,” Zelenska said.
Jill Biden and Zelenska met with about 15 displaced Ukrainian children who were doing arts and crafts projects for Mother’s Day.
An official with the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration told reporters the projects were recreational and psychosocial, in an effort to promote socialization among children who are now living at the school and dealing with trauma from the war.
The children used cardboard and tissue paper to make bears, which represent the region around Uzhhorod. Both first ladies crafted their own bears, using white and yellow tissue paper, according to the pool.
That was Biden’s last stop during her multiday trip to eastern Europe before heading back to Slovakia to depart at Kosice Airport.
Michael LaRosa, press secretary to the first lady, said during a press briefing on the plane that Biden first expressed that she wanted to visit Ukraine in March for her spring break, but the opportunity was not available at the time.
“Mother’s Day was something she thought would be special for the mothers of Ukraine,” he said.
LaRosa said officials who landed in the region 10 days in advance of Biden’s trip began notifying regional government officials of the first lady’s travel plans. At that point, Ukrainians offered to arrange a visit with Zelenska.
While Biden had always planned to visit the school, the meeting with Zelenska was only confirmed in the last few days, LaRosa said.
LaRosa said that during their meeting, Biden asked Zelenska how she was doing as a mother and handling the war.
Zelenska said she was grateful she “is able to hold her children’s hands every night even though she can’t be with her husband,” LaRosa shared.
Biden was quickly praised for her trip to Ukraine.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Biden’s visit with Zelenska will bring “so much support and encouragement to the Ukrainian women and children.”
“For her to go there on Mother’s Day to meet with the Ukrainian first lady, I think sends a very strong, a very positive message,” Thomas-Greenfield said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Thomas-Greenfield noted she met with Ukrainian mothers during a trip to Romania and Moldova a few weeks ago and has seen the strength they have.
“Having the first lady there, encouraging them, supporting them, actually in Ukraine, I think sends a strong message of support and commitment that the U.S. government has to supporting Ukrainians moving forward,” she said.
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_