Editor’s Note: Jill Biden is the first lady of the United States. She recently visited Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine over Mother’s Day weekend. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
You cannot go into a war zone and come away unchanged. You don’t have to see the sorrow with your eyes because you can feel it with your heart.
The thing about grief is that it veils one’s face. It’s like a haze has descended. The tears of the mothers stay permanently on the edges of their eyes, as if they can barely contain their sadness. They grasp their children’s hands or touch their hair as if they can’t bear to lose the physical connection. They wear brave faces, but their emotion is portrayed in the slope of their shoulders, the nervousness in their bodies.
Something is missing – laughter, a common language among women.
The Ukrainian mothers at the Romanian and Slovak schools I visited told me about the horrors of the bombs that fell night after night as they sought to find refuge during their journey westward. Many had to live days without food and sunlight, harbored in basements underground.
A young mother I met in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, told me that when she and her family ventured out in search of food, Russian soldiers would shoot into the lines of people waiting for a piece of bread. These Ukrainian mothers were so grateful to the people of Romania and Slovakia for their support. As another mother, Anna, told me, there are “no borders for our hearts.”
The border guards told me stories of thousands of people with few belongings who crossed into Slovakia – a desperate sea of humanity, whose lives were forever changed on February 24, the date of Russia’s further invasion of an unjust war that began years ago.
In the cold of February, many came without shoes, walking for miles upon miles. They were fleeing in fear, carrying one wish of being able to return home. One 11-year-old came by himself with a phone number to contact his family written on his hand. And then there were their pets making the journey with them. “We weren’t ready for that,” the guards told me.
Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s President, came out of hiding, leaving her own children, to visit with me and ask for help for the people of her country. She didn’t ask me for food or clothing or weapons. She asked me to help her get mental health care for all those suffering from the effects of Vladimir Putin’s senseless and brutal war.
She told me of the rapes of women and children, and the many children who had seen people shot and killed, their homes burned. “I want to return home quickly,” she told me. “I only want to hold the hands of my children.”
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We wished each other Happy Mother’s Day. I told her I was in Ukraine to show Ukrainian mothers that we were standing with them, and I was carrying the hearts of the American people with me. “Thank you,” Zelenska responded, “the Ukrainians are so grateful for the support of the American people.”
Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” My hope is that this is true for the mothers I met. But that can only happen when this war ends.
Mr. Putin, please end this senseless and brutal war.