Jill Biden visited the Ukraine in a surprise visit on Sunday where she met her Ukrainian counterpart Olena Zelenska and expressed American support for the embattled nation.
‘I wanted to come in 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,’ she said.
Biden is the highest profile member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit the war torn country.
The visit wasn’t announced due to security reasons. The first lady traveled by vehicle to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovakian village that borders Ukraine. She spent about two hours in Ukraine.
Biden gave Zelenska, the wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a bouquet of flowers. This is the first time Zelenska has appeared in public since Feb. 24, the date of the Russian invasion. The two first ladies have exchanged correspondences in the last few weeks, the White House said.
‘First of all, I would like to thank you for a very courageous act,’ Zelenska said through a translator.
‘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,’ she said. She and her children have been in a secure location during the war.
‘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.
The first ladies visited a public school in Uzhhorod that is being used as temporary housing and shelter for 163 displaced Ukrainians, including 47 children.
They joined kids who were working on art projects for their mothers. The children were crafting cardboard and tissue paper bears, which represent the symbol of the Zakarpattia Oblast.
Both women worked on crafting their own bears, using white and yellow tissue paper.
President Joe Biden has said he would like to visit but is not allowed – likely due to security reasons. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been the most high-profile members of the administration to date to visit the Ukraine. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress also have visted and met with President Zelensky in Kyiv.
Jill Biden and Olena Zelenska, wife of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky
Jill Biden with Olena Zelenska – this is the first time Zelenska has appeared in public since Feb. 24, the date of the Russian invasion
The secret visit came after Biden spent Mother’s Day comforting Ukrainian women and children in Slovakia and touring the border region where refugees escape the war with Russia.
‘The hearts of the American people are with the mothers of Ukraine,’ she told refugees.
She met a mother who struggled to explain the Russian invasion to her children, walked the line of the border along chain-length fence to tour the tent city that offered humantarian assistance, gave hugs and met with students.
At a bus station in Kosice the first lady met Viktoriia Kutocha, a refugee and fellow teacher, who said she struggles to explain the war to her three children. Her seven-year-old daughter Yulie was at her side.
‘I cannot explain because I don´t know myself and I´m a teacher,’ Kutocha told Biden. ‘They come to our land. They kill us, but they say we protect you.’
‘It’s so hard to understand,’ Biden said.
She patted Kutocha arm when the mother got choked up and couldn’t continue. ‘Thank you for talking with me,’ the first lady said.
Kutocha shared her emotional journey out of her war-torn homeland and said her husband remains there where he has joined the fighting.
‘How I can explain this to child? It’s impossible,’ she said. ‘I try to keep them safe. It’s my mission.’
‘It’s senseless,’ Biden said.
Yulie then hugged the first lady, who brought in her mother for a group hug.
The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia. It provides services to approximiately 300 to 350 people daily – offering food, showers, clothing, emergency on-site accommodations and other services, according to information provided by the White House.
The vast majority of arriving refugees transit through Kosice and move onward to other countries or other Slovak cities.
Biden also visited the Vysne Nemecke crossing at the Ukraine-Slovakian border, where refugees receive basic services before moving on to other processing centers further inside Slovakia.
Humanitarian organizations also use the area to transport assistance into the Ukraine.
About 2,000 people per day cross at the area, down from over 10,000 per day immediately following Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine – and a large portion of that flow is daily cross border traffic.
First lady Jill Biden talks with Ukrainian refugees Victorie Kutocha and her daughter Yulie Kutocha, 7, at a city-run refugee center in Kosice, Slovakia
Biden hugs Victorie Kutocha and her daughter Yulie Kutocha
Jill Biden speaks with Slovakia’s Prime Minister Eduard Heger as she walks from Vysne Nemeck, Slovenia, near the border with Ukraine
Jill Biden attended mass in a tent on the Ukraine-Slovenia border
Biden is the highest profile member of the administration to visit the border region. President Joe Biden visited refugees in Poland but was 60 miles away from Ukraine.
The first lady attended mass in a tent during her visit to the border. She wore a pink and white flower corsage sent to her by the president in honor of Mother’s Day. And she was accompanied by Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger and his wife Lucia Hegerova.
‘We pray for the people of Ukraine,’ the priest said in the opening blessing.
She visited the series of tents, a few hundred yards from the Ukraine border, that were set up by various NGOs to assist the refugees.
She met volunteers who provide psychosocial support services to refugees and a tent operated by Slovak Catholic charities with food and other supplies.
The tent was stacked with gently used toys and pre-loved stuffed animals for children along with boxes of baby formula.
Biden also dropped in at the Tomasikova Street School, a Slovakian public school that has taken in displaced students. About 60 Ukrainian students attend there, which has offered Slovak language classes to support greater integration.
She was offered bread dripped in salt upon her arrival, which is a traditional Slovak welcome. She ate the bread and watched the students perform a song.
‘I just wanted to come and show you our support,’ Biden said.
The kids were making art projects for Mother’s Day and one by offered the first lady a drawing. It included a cat and Biden told him: ‘I have a cat.’
Jill Biden arrives at a primary school on Tomasikova street, Kosice, Slovakia
A little girl shows Jill Biden her art work
The women said they speak to their husbands back in the Ukraine every day using video conferencing.
One woman, when asked what it meant to have the first lady there, said: ‘It means support for us. We are very tired. This is emotional support for us.’
Biden is wrapping up a four-day trip to Europe where she is visiting with displaced Ukrainians. More than six milllion have fled the Ukraine since Russia attacked in February. She kicked off her tour with stops in Romania and returns to the United States on Monday.