For weeks, first lady Jill Biden has been transfixed by the news coming out of Ukraine, by the bombings and scenes of “parents weeping over their children’s broken bodies in the streets,” as she said in a recent speech.
Now Biden is using her second solo overseas trip to get an up-close look at the Ukrainian refugee crisis by visiting Romania and Slovakia, where she will spend Mother’s Day meeting with displaced families in a small Slovakian village on the border with Ukraine.
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President Joe Biden will not join her, but will likely stay in his home in Delaware.
Biden, who opens the visit Friday in Romania, told reporters traveling with her Thursday night, “It’s so important to the president and to me that the Ukrainian people know that we stand with them.” She said earlier in the week she wants the refugees to know “their resilience inspires me.”
NATO allies Romania and Slovakia border Ukraine and have taken in some of the millions of mostly women and children who fled after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, triggering Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.
After flying overnight from Washington, Biden was to arrive at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania, near the Black Sea, in time to help serve Friday dinner to U.S. service members stationed there. Some of the several thousand U.S. troops that President Joe Biden deployed to eastern Europe in the leadup to the war were sent to the base, which is about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Romania’s border with Ukraine.
The centerpiece of the first lady’s trip comes Sunday — Mother’s Day — when Biden, a mother of three, meets with displaced Ukrainians who sought refuge across the border in Slovakia.
Biden’s daughter, Ashley Biden, had planned to accompany her mother to Europe, but backed out after learning Thursday that she was a close contact of someone who tested positive for COVID-19, said Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson. Ashley Biden tested negative, LaRosa said.
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“I can only imagine the grief families are feeling,” Jill Biden said this week. “I know that we might not share a language, but I hope that I can convey, in ways so much greater than words, that their resilience inspires me, that they are not forgotten, and that all Americans stand with them still.”
The first lady also will meet during the trip with humanitarian aid workers, educators, government officials, and U.S. embassy personnel, the White House said.
Nearly 6 million Ukrainians, mostly women, and children, have fled their country since Russia’s invasion, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Many have resettled in next-door countries, like Romania and Slovakia, or have gone 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 crossed into Slovakia, according to government figures from those countries.
President Biden visited Ukrainian refugees during a stop in Poland in March. That’s the closest he’s been to Ukraine. The White House has said there are no current plans for him to visit Kyiv.
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After her time with the U.S. service members, the first lady was set to spend Saturday in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, being briefed on humanitarian efforts, meeting with Romanian first lady Carmen Iohannis and touring a school where Ukrainian refugee students are enrolled before she departs for Slovakia. Biden is a community college English professor.
On Sunday, she heads to Kosice, Slovakia, to visit a city-operated refugee center and a public school that also hosts Ukrainian refugee students, where she will spend time with Ukrainian and Slovakian mothers and children as they participate in Mother’s Day activities. Afterward, she will travel to the Slovakia-Ukraine border crossing in Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia.
The White House declined to comment on whether she will cross the border and enter Ukraine.
The Associated Press contributed to this article