Olena Zelenska, first lady of Ukraine, warns that no Ukrainian is safe from Russian forces

While the President focused on the military response against Russian forces, the First Lady focused on humanitarian and children’s issues, working to raise awareness around the world of the suffering of ordinary Ukrainians in the wake of the war.

Madam First Lady, given all that is going on, how are you and your family coping?

It’s like walking a tightrope: if you start thinking how you’re doing it, you lose time and balance. So to hold on, you just have to go ahead and do what you do. In the same way, as far as I know, all Ukrainians are holding up.

Many of those who have escaped the battlefields alone, who have seen death, say that the main remedy after the experience is to act, to do something, to help someone. I am personally supported by the fact that I try to protect and support others. Disciplines of responsibility.

When you became First Lady, you pledged to make children a centerpiece of your work. How devastating was it to see Ukrainian children, including yours, suffer in a war zone?

And so it was: children and their needs were one of the main areas of my work, along with the introduction of … equal rights for all Ukrainians. Before the war, we launched a reform of school food, preparing it for several years, to make it tasty and healthy at the same time so that children would fall ill less.

How do I feel now, you ask? I feel like we’ve been thrown years and decades back.

Now, we are not talking about healthy foods, but about foods in general. The survival of our children depends on it! We no longer discuss, as before, what is the best equipment for schools — [instead] the education of millions of children is in question.

We can not talk about a healthy lifestyle for children – the number one goal is to save [them] at all.

Half of our children have been forced to go abroad; thousands were physically and psychologically injured. February 23 [the day before Russia invaded Ukraine]they were ordinary European students with a schedule and vacation plans.

Imagine that you have built and renovated a house and you have just put flowers on the windowsill; and now it is destroyed, and on the ruin you have to light a fire to warm yourself. This is what happened to our children’s policies and to every family in general.

Tell us about the work you have done to support Ukrainian refugee women and children? What more can the world do to help on this front?

I am now working in several directions. Over the summer, we succeeded in creating the Summit of the First Ladies and Gentlemen of the World, and now my colleagues are true allies in this area.

First, we evacuate our most vulnerable – children with [cancer], [those with] disabled and orphans — to countries that agree to accept them for treatment and rehabilitation. The main route passes through Poland, and from there – to other European countries.

Second, we are importing incubators to Ukraine to support newborns in cities bombed by the Russians. In many hospitals there are power cuts and children’s lives are in danger. Therefore, we need devices that save lives without interruption. Two of these devices have already been delivered and eight more incubators should be delivered.

Third, we accelerate the adaptation of refugees – children and their mothers – to the new location, because humanitarian aid alone is not enough: children need accelerated socialization and schooling in a new place. This applies in particular to the thousands of autistic children who have found themselves abroad. We are now working on making it easier for them to access courses, otherwise their development will simply stop.

In collaboration with the embassies, we coordinate events in favor of Ukraine – several international concerts have already raised funds for humanitarian aid to Ukrainians.

Volodymyr Zelensky and Olena Zelenska attend a memorial service in kyiv in February, shortly before the start of the Russian invasion.

Have you been able to see your husband since the beginning of the conflict?

Volodymyr and his team actually live in the president’s office. Due to the danger, my children and I were forbidden to stay there. Thus, for more than a month we have been communicating only by telephone.

The whole world was inspired by your husband’s leadership of wartime Ukraine. You married him in 2003 and have known him since you both went to college. Did you always know he had that in him?

I always knew he was and would be a reliable support for me. Then he became a wonderful father and support for our family. And now he showed the same traits.

He did not changed. It’s just that more people saw it through my eyes.

You have a 17-year-old daughter, Sasha, and a nine-year-old son, Kyrylo. How did you explain the war to them? Do they stay with you?

Fortunately, the children are with me. And, like I said, when there’s someone to take care of, it’s very disciplining. By the way, this also applies to the children themselves – they have grown dramatically during this time and also feel responsible for each other and those around them.

Nothing in particular needed to be explained. We only talk about whatever is going on. When I watch Bucha’s children’s interviews or hear my friends’ stories about their children, I realize that children don’t understand everything better than adults. They look at the essentials. As one young child said, “Why are the Russians so mean to us? Apparently they were beaten at home?

You would be the second most important target of the Russian forces, after your husband. How do you keep your resolve in the face of such danger? What prompted you to stay in Ukraine?

For some reason, I get asked this question all the time. But if you look closely, it becomes clear that every Ukrainian is a target for the Russians: every woman, every child.

Those who died the other day from a Russian missile [while] trying to evacuate from Kramatorsk were not members of the presidential family, they were just Ukrainians. So the number one target for the enemy is all of us.

Your husband spoke directly in Russian to the Russians, but it is obviously difficult to reach them. Given the atrocities that have been committed against your people, do you have a message, especially for Russian mothers and wives, that you think they should hear now?

The level of Russian propaganda is often compared to Goebbels’ propaganda during World War II. But in my opinion, it exceeds [that]because during the Second World War there was no Internet or access to information, like today.

Now everyone can see the war crimes – for example, those committed by the Russians in Bucha, where the bodies of civilians with their hands tied simply lay in the streets.

But the problem is that the Russians don’t want to see what the whole world sees, [in order] to feel more comfortable. After all, it’s easier to say, “It’s all wrong” and go out for a coffee than to read the story of a particular person who has died, to watch their grieving relatives and friends.

For example, read the story of one of the victims [in] Bucha, a woman named Tatiana, who was shot by a Russian bullet, and her husband, who asked the invaders to take the body away, but was beaten and tied up.

How do you make the Russians understand this? I am more and more inclined to think that, unfortunately, not at all, they are blind in belief. They don’t want to hear or see. I will not address them again.

The main thing for Ukraine today is that everyone else hears us and sees us, and it is important that our war does not become “habitual”, so that our victims do not become statistics. That’s why I communicate with people through foreign media.

Don’t get used to our grief!

You used your social media accounts as a platform to pay tribute to Ukrainian soldiers and the Ukrainian resistance. How proud are you of your country, especially of what you called the “female face” of the Ukrainian resistance?

On the first day of the war, it became clear that there was no panic. Yes, Ukrainians did not believe in war – we believed in civilized dialogue. But when the attack took place, we did not become a “frightened mob” as the enemy had hoped. No. We have become an organized community.

Immediately, the political and other controversies that exist in all societies disappeared. Everyone gathered to protect their home.

I see examples every day and never tire of writing about them. Yes, Ukrainians are amazing.

And indeed, I write a lot about our women, because their involvement is everywhere — they’re in the armed forces and the defense forces, most of them are doctors. And they are the ones who keep children and families safe. For example, only they can go abroad. Thus, in some respects, their role is even more diverse than that of men; it’s more than equality!

Editor’s Note: This Q&A interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


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