Washington — First lady Dr. Jill Biden made a surprise trip toon Sunday, meeting with the first lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska and visiting with Ukrainian children who have been displaced by the ongoing war with Russia.
Biden, who embarked on her trip to Eastern Europe on Thursday, crossed the border from Slovakia into southwestern Ukraine on Sunday afternoon for the unannounced visit to a public school in Uzhhorod that was converted into a temporary shelter, housing 163 Ukrainians, including 47 children. It was a rare visit by a U.S. first lady into a war zone.
The first lady was greeted by Zelenska, who has not been seen in public since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, according to a U.S. official. The official said the two women have exchanged correspondence over the last few weeks.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” Biden told reporters traveling with her. “We 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.”
Zelenska called the visit by Biden 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,” she said. “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.”
Biden and Zelenska held a private bilateral meeting for roughly 30 minutes, after which they met with Ukrainians who have been displaced from their homes and children who were making bears out of cardboard and tissue paper for their mothers.
The first lady returned to Slovakia after spending roughly two hours in Ukraine, and spoke with President Biden after the visit, according to Michael LaRosa, Biden’s press secretary.
LaRosa said Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, gave Biden a letter from Zelenska at the State of the Union in March, and Ukraine’s first lady sent another letter last month expressing concerns about the toll of the war on the mental health of children, troops and families.
Biden joins a growing number of top U.S. officials who have made secret visits to Ukraine in recent weeks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austinof Kyiv in April, and a delegation of House Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the capital last week and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Mr. Biden has not traveled to Ukraine, though he visited Eastern Europe in March.
Biden’s unannounced stop in Ukraine is the first by the spouse of a sitting president to a war zone since Laura Bush visited Afghanistan in 2008. The former first lady also visited Afghanistan in 2005. Michelle Obama in 2015 traveled to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which has been designated a combat zone since 1991, to meet with troops.