First lady Jill Biden on Saturday met with Ukrainian women and children who fled their country at a school in Bucharest, Romania, saying after that she felt there was hope in the classrooms.
“I felt like there was hope in that there were some answers coming forward, and they felt that there was some structure to their lives and they were getting supplies. They all realize how much money the United States has been giving to Ukraine and to the refugee situation and to Romania to support the refugees…I thought that was really important,” Biden told reporters.
She visited Scoala Gimnaziala Uruguay, a Romanian public school that is hosting Ukrainian refugee students, alongside Romania’s first lady Carmen Iohannis.
“We’re all hopeful, right? We wake up every morning and think ‘this has to end,’ but it still keeps going on and on. I mean, you know, it’s been going on really since 2014,” Biden said.
The two first ladies went to the school together, holding hands, and visited with children tracing their hands and cutting them out on paper printed with Ukrainian and Romanian flags.
Biden introduced the reporters traveling with her to one child named Mila, a 7-year-old from Kyiv, who wrote a message translated by a teacher: “I want to return to my father.”
Another child, a five-year-old, was too young to write, but drew pictures on one of the hands that a teacher translated: “I want to go to Odessa as soon as possible. That’s my wish.”
“Wasn’t it heartbreaking? The little girl that said her wish was to be with her daddy, and then another said my wish is to go home, and then you can see it those children really have suffered,” Biden said to reporters after the visit.
The school serves students ages five to 15, and is currently hosting two classrooms of Ukrainian refugee students. The Ukrainians play with Romanian students during free time and extracurricular activities at the school, which is supported by UNHCR, UNICEF and Save the Children.
Ukrainian women who fled their country and now live in Romania shared their stories with Biden, who at times appeared to be on the verge of tears.
“I crossed the border with my three-year-old son and everything I was thinking about was how to save my child from a city that was bombed,” said Anastasia Konovalvoa, a Ukrainian teacher who in March fled to Romania. “Thank God the Romanian people were here. I think even the Romanian didn’t expect that they could be so wonderful because you don’t expect that from people.”
“We stand with you,” Biden said. “I hope you know that.”
“I think you are the amazing ones, really,” Biden added. “I think mothers will do anything for their children … I think you’re amazingly strong and resilient.”
The two first ladies distributed flowers to the Ukrainian women.
“I’m very grateful that you took the time and made the effort to visit us,” Iohannis said to Biden. “We feel safer knowing that [the U.S.] back us up…. sticking together, being united is very important to us.”
Biden and Iohannis went to a soccer field where students sang the Romanian national anthem and then a Ukrainian military march song. She shook hands with students, posed for photographers and handed out chocolate bars and Air Force One M&Ms.
Before going to the school, the first lady had a private lunch with Iohannis at the residence of the Romanian President. Biden said that she and Iohannis “have so much in common. We like the same authors. We like to read.”
Biden told reporters after the meeting that Iohannis was also a teacher. Biden is a longtime educator.
“It was just such a wonderful lunch. You never know what you’re getting into, what you’re walking into. She looked at my heritage. She tried to do Italian meals for our lunch, and then we just talked like, girlfriends. I mean, we talked about literature, Shakespeare, we talked about Mark Twain, we talked about exercise,” Biden said.
“We’re such a strong alliance with Romania, and that we’re all supporting Ukraine,” she added.
Earlier on Saturday, the first lady received a humanitarian briefing on efforts to aid refugees at the U.S. embassy in Romania.
The briefing included David Muniz, Charge d’affaires to Romania, Pieter Bult, UNICEF representative in Romania, Gabriela Alexandrescu, chief executive officer of Save the Children Romania, and others.
The UNHCR official told her that roughly 7,000 refugees from Ukraine are entering Romania each day, and nearly 900,000 refugees have come through Romania so far.
Biden was particularly interested in the availability of mental health services and how teachers are being prepared to handle refugee children who may be dealing with trauma. She was told they need more counselors and need to continue to train teachers to be able to assist students with trauma.
She also asked about the mindset of refugees and whether they hope to integrate into Romania or return to Ukraine, whether organizations are offering telehealth services, and how refugees can find out about available mental health services.
Later on Saturday, the first lady will travel to Slovakia and visit the U.S. embassy. On Sunday, she will visit Slovakia’s border with Ukraine to mark Mother’s Day.
On Friday, Biden visited Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania, where she served food to U.S. troops.