For weeks, first lady Jill Biden has been transfixed by the news from Ukraine, by the bombings and the scenes of “parents crying over the broken bodies of their children in the streets,” as she said in a recent speech.
Now, Biden is using her second solo trip abroad to take a close look at the Ukrainian refugee crisis by visiting Romania and Slovakia, where she will spend Mother’s Day meeting displaced families in a small Slovakian village at the border with Ukraine.
Biden, who opens the visit to Romania on Friday, told reporters traveling with her Thursday night, “It’s so important to the president and to me that the people of Ukraine know we’re on their side.” Earlier in the week, she said she wanted refugees to know that “their resilience inspires me”.
NATO allies Romania and Slovakia border Ukraine and have taken in some of the millions of women and children, mostly women and children, who fled after Ukraine was invaded by Russia in late February, triggering the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Biden will also use her four days in Europe to highlight issues she promotes at home, such as support for the US military, education and child welfare.
After an overnight flight from Washington, Biden was due to arrive at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania, near the Black Sea, in time to help serve Friday dinner to US service members stationed there. Some of the thousands of US troops President Joe Biden deployed to Eastern Europe before the war were sent to the base, which is about 100 kilometers from the Romania-Ukraine border.
The centerpiece of the first lady’s trip comes on Sunday – Mother’s Day – when Biden, a mother of three, meets displaced Ukrainians who have sought refuge across the border in Slovakia.
Biden’s daughter, Ashley Biden, had planned to accompany her mother to Europe, but backtracked after learning on Thursday that she was a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19, Michael LaRosa said, Spokesperson for the First Lady. Ashley Biden has tested negative, LaRosa said.
“I can only imagine the grief the families are feeling,” Jill Biden said this week. “I know we may not share a language, but I hope to be able to convey, in way more than words, that their resilience inspires me, that they are not forgotten, and that all Americans are always by their side.
The first lady will also meet with aid workers, educators, government officials and US embassy staff during the trip, the White House said.
Nearly 6 million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have fled their country since the Russian invasion, according to the UN refugee agency. Many have resettled in neighboring countries, such as Romania and Slovakia, or moved elsewhere in Europe to try to rebuild their lives.
More than 850,000 Ukrainians have entered Romania since the invasion, while nearly 400,000 have entered Slovakia, according to government figures from those countries.
Nancy Dent works for the International Rescue Committee, one of the aid organizations on the ground in Poland, where most of the Ukrainians who have fled the violence have gone. She spoke with NBCLX storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo about how she has helped Ukrainian refugees in Lublin and how those far from the crisis can provide support.
Biden has long been interested in the plight of refugees around the world.
In 2011, when her husband was vice president, she traveled to drought-stricken East Africa to visit famine-stricken Somali refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab camp. In 2017, she visited refugees in Chios, Greece, as part of the work of the aid organization Save The Children, of which she served on the board.
Some refugee advocates said Biden’s trip would send a message that the United States takes its humanitarian commitment to the Ukrainian people seriously.
“Every First Lady has a far-reaching platform to raise awareness and this trip will be an important tool in mobilizing additional support for those forced to flee their homeland,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and Chief director of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. and former policy director to first lady Michelle Obama.
Jill Biden’s trip will be the last to the region for a U.S. government official following recent visits to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State State Antony Blinken to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
President Biden visited Ukrainian refugees during a stopover in Poland in March. It’s the closest he’s been to Ukraine. The White House said there were no plans for him to travel to Kyiv.
After her stint with the US military, the first lady was scheduled to spend Saturday in the Romanian capital Bucharest, learn about humanitarian efforts, meet Romanian first lady Carmen Iohannis and visit a school where Ukrainian refugee students are enrolled before departing for Slovakia. . Biden is an English teacher at a community college.
On Sunday, she travels to Kosice, Slovakia, to visit a city-run refugee center and a public school that also hosts Ukrainian refugee students, where she will spend time with Ukrainian and Slovak mothers and children as they participate in mother’s day activities. Then she will go to the Slovak-Ukrainian border crossing in Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia.
The White House declined to say whether she would cross the border and enter Ukraine.
She will also visit a small Greek Catholic chapel in Vysne Nemecke which serves refugees.
Monday brings a meeting with Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, the country’s first female president before Biden returns to Washington.
The first lady has shown her support for the people of Ukraine in several ways. She wore a sunflower – Ukraine’s national flower – on her mask and a dress sleeve and traveled to a hospital in Tennessee to visit Ukrainian children being airlifted for cancer treatment.
She sat Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, during President Biden’s State of the Union address in March, and visited the army at Fort Campbell in Kentucky to visit the families of American soldiers who have been deployed to Europe to help with the Ukraine crisis.
The trip is the first lady’s second overseas by herself. She flew to Tokyo last year to represent the United States at the opening of the Olympics.
Click here for comprehensive coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.
President Biden said his request for an additional $33 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine reflected the importance of the mission. What else does it tell us about what awaits us? NBCLX storyteller Clark Fouraker spoke with Arik Burakovsky of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to put the request into perspective.