Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s first lady, warns that no Ukrainians are safe from Russian forces

While the president’s focus has been on the military backlash against Russian forces, the first lady has concentrated on humanitarian and child issues and worked to raise global awareness of the plight of ordinary Ukrainians as a result of the war.

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

It’s like walking on tight ropes: If you start thinking about how to do it, you lose time and balance. So to persevere, just go ahead and do what you do. In the same way, as far as I know, all Ukrainians hold on.

Many of those who fled the battlefields alone, who saw death, say that the main cure after the experience is to act, to do something, to be helpful to someone. I am personally supported by the fact that I try to protect and support others. Disciplinary disciplines.

When you became first lady, you promised to make children a central element of your work. How devastating has it been to see Ukrainian children, including your own, suffer through 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 the school nutrition, which we prepared for several years, to make it tasty and healthy at the same time, so that children become less ill.

How am I doing now, you ask? I feel like we were thrown years and decades back.

Now we are not talking about healthy food, but about food in general. It’s about our children’s survival! We no longer discuss, as before, what is the best equipment for schools – [instead] education for millions of children is under question.

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

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

Imagine that you have built and renovated a house and just put flowers in the window sill; and now it is ruined, and on the ruin you must light a fire to keep the heat. This is what has happened to our children’s policies and to every family in general.

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

I work in several directions now. In the summer, we managed to create the summit for the world’s first ladies and gentlemen, and now my colleagues are real allies in this.

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

Second, we import incubators to Ukraine to support newborns in cities being bombed by Russians. In many hospitals there are power outages and children’s lives are in danger. That is why we need devices that save lives without interruption. Two such units have already been delivered and a further eight incubators are planned to be delivered.

Thirdly, we are accelerating the adaptation of refugees – children and their mothers – to the new place, because humanitarian aid alone is not enough: children need accelerated socialization and schooling in a new place. This is especially true of thousands of children with autism who have found themselves abroad. We are now working to make it easier for them to access classes, otherwise their development will simply stop.

Together with the embassies, we coordinate events in support of Ukraine – several international concerts have already raised money for humanitarian aid for Ukrainians.

Volodymyr Zelensky and Olena Zelenska attend a memorial service in Kiev in February - shortly before the Russian invasion began.

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

Volodymyr and his team actually live in the president’s office. Because of the father, my children and I were banned from staying there. So for more than a month we only communicate by phone.

The whole world has been inspired by your husband’s war leadership in Ukraine. You married him in 2003 and have known him since you both went to university. Did you always know he had this 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 has shown the same traits.

He has 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? Will they stay with you?

Luckily the kids are with me. And as I said, when there is someone to take care of, it is very disciplining. 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 specifically needed to be explained. We’re just talking about everything that happens. When I watch the interviews with the children from Bucha or hear my friends’ stories about their children, I realize that children do not understand everything better than adults. They look at the essence. As a small child said, “Why are the Russians so mean to us? Apparently they were beaten at home?”

You are reportedly the second highest target for Russian forces, after your husband. How do you maintain your determination to face such a danger? What made you choose to stay in Ukraine?

For some reason, I am constantly asked this question. But if you look closely, it becomes clear that every Ukrainian is a target of Russians: every woman, every child.

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

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

The level of Russian propaganda is often compared to Goebbels’ propaganda during World War II. But in my opinion it surpasses [that]because in World War II there was no internet and access to information like now.

Now everyone can see the war crimes – for example, those committed by the Russians in Bucha, where the bodies of civilians with tied hands were simply lying on the street.

But the problem is that the Russians do not want to see what the whole world sees, [in order] to feel more comfortable. After all, it’s easier to say, ‘It’s all fake,’ and go and drink your coffee than to read the story of a certain person who died, look at her relatives and friends who are in mourning.

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 attackers to take the body away, but was beaten and tied up.

How do you get the Russians to see this? I am more and more inclined to believe that unfortunately they are not blind in the faith at all. They will not hear and see. I do not want to address them anymore.

The most important thing for Ukraine today is that the whole other world hears 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.

Do not get used to our grief!

You have 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 have called the “feminine face” of the Ukrainian resistance?

On the first day of the war, it was 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 crowd,” as the enemy had hoped. No. We became an organized society.

At once, the political and other controversies that exist in every society disappeared. Everyone came together to protect their home.

I see examples every day and I never get tired of writing about it. Yes, Ukrainians are incredible.

And in fact, I write a lot about our women because their participation is everywhere – they are in the armed forces and the defense forces, most of them are doctors. And they are the ones who bring children and families to safety. For example, only those who can go abroad. So in some ways their role is even more diverse than men’s; it’s more than equality!

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

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