From East Wing to Western Ukraine: A Look at Jill Biden’s Secret Trip

Jill Biden meets Olena Zelenska

Getty Images

In a rare move, the first lady visited an active war zone to meet with Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska.

First lady Jill Biden spent her Mother’s Day in Ukraine, where she consoled Ukrainian refugees and sat down with the country’s first lady. Here’s a closer look at her rare surprise trip.

The first ladies meet

During a four-day trip through Eastern Europe, the first lady made a secret stop in Uzhhorod, a small town near the border of Slovakia. There she met Olena Zelenska, the wife of President Volodymyr Zelensky, at a school that’s been converted to house refugees. Zelenska, who hasn’t appeared in public since the war began in February, thanked Dr. Biden for her “very courageous act” in coming to an active war zone. 

“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” Dr. Biden told Zelenska. “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.”

Dr. Biden wore a Mother’s Day corsage she received from her husband and presented Zelenska with a bouquet. The two women spoke in private for about 30 minutes about their concerns over the war and their personal lives, the New York Times reports. They then sat down with children living at the school as they crafted Mother’s Day gifts out of cardboard and tissue paper. 

First ladies Jill Biden and Olena Zelenska work on crafts with Ukrainian children. (Getty Images)

Her trip came on the same day that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Kyiv and U2 singer Bono performed in a makeshift bomb shelter. It also took place as a bomb killed dozens of people sheltering in a school in eastern Ukraine.

Jill Biden meets Ukrainian refugees

Dr. Biden began her trip in Romania, meeting troops stationed there, then traveled to Bucharest to see a school hosting Ukrainian children. Before crossing the border into Ukraine, the first lady stopped at a bus station in Slovakia where there’s a refugee processing center. There she heard emotional stories from Ukrainains, including a mother struggling to explain the violence to her three children, per the NYT

“How can I explain this to (a) child? It’s impossible,” Viktozie Kutocha said as she held her daughter. “I try to keep them safe. It’s my mission.”

“It’s senseless,” Dr. Biden responded. 

Jill Biden embraces an active role as first lady

First ladies have traveled abroad before during times of conflict. Eleanor Roosevelt visited troops during World War II, Pat Nixon went to South Vietnam with her husband, Hillary Clinton stopped in Bosnia in 1996, and Melania Trump accompanied former President Trump to Iraq in 2018, per the AP. But few have visited an active war zone alone, the Washington Post reports. (The last was Laura Bush, who visited Afghanistan.) 

Neither President Biden nor Vice President Harris have visited Ukraine — likely for security reasons — which makes the first lady’s trip all the more important in signaling America’s continued support for Ukraine.