As the world watches Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky become a global symbol of leadership in the face of Russia’s invasion, the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, has taken on a less public role. But this week, she emerged into the spotlight to send a hopeful message to the world about life under siege and how her country is moving forward.
“The war immediately combined the personal and public. And this is probably the fatal mistake of the tyrant who attacked us, ”Zelenska said Vogue magazine about her mix of personal and civic feelings. “We are all Ukrainians first, and then everything else. [Russia] wanted to divide us, to shatter us, to provoke internal confrontation, but it is impossible to do this with Ukrainians. When one of us is tortured, raped, or killed, we feel that we are all being tortured, raped, or killed. ”
“It is this personal anger and pain, which we all feel, that instantly activates the thirst to act, to resist aggression, to defend our freedom,” she added. “I’ve seen this raise the deepest patriotic feelings in our children. Not only my children, but all the children of Ukraine. They will grow up to be patriots and defenders of their homeland. ”
A mother of two to daughter Oleksandra, 17, and son Kyrylo, 9, the first lady added that when discussing the atrocities of war to her own children she learned that “the best strategy is the truth.”
“They see everything, as does every child in Ukraine,” she said. “Surely, this is not something that children should see – but children are very honest and sincere. You can’t hide anything from them. Therefore, the best strategy is the truth. So, we’ve discussed everything with my daughter and son. I have tried to answer their questions. We talk a lot, because to say what hurts, to not remain silent within yourself – this is a proven psychological strategy. It works. ”
“At the beginning there was no time for emotions,” she said of that time. “It was necessary to take care of the children, their emotional states. So I tried to be confident, smiling, energetic, explaining to them that, yes, it is necessary to go down to the basement and this is why you cannot turn on the light. I tried to optimistically answer their question, ‘When will we see dad?’ ‘Soon.’ ”
While she had hoped she would be able to stay with her husband in those first days, Zelenska explained that “the president’s office had become a military facility and my children and I were forbidden to stay there” so they were ordered to move to a safe place – if, in Ukraine, it is possible to find a safe place now. ”
Since that time, the first lady added, she and her children have been able to communicate with their dad “only by phone.”
Zelenska later described a particular moment, one week after the start of the war, when she wasn’t sure if her relatives were alive – an experience she said she’ll never forget.
“At one point, I realized that I didn’t know if I would ever see them again – those I love, my beloved people!” she said. “That was probably the first time I cried – the first time I let go of my emotions. I couldn’t stand it.”
The first lady also couldn’t help but touch on some of the heroic efforts made by women. “I want all the people in the world to understand that Ukrainian women lived a peaceful, modern life” before the war, she said. “We had to learn how to quickly gather loved ones at the sound of the siren and go down to the subway or the nearest basement.”
“Women had to leave occupied cities – such as Bucha and Gostomel, risking their lives under fire – with children and the elderly, often on foot, often without men, because men would not be released by the occupiers,” she continued. “And now as these cities are de-occupied, we know more about what Ukrainian women have faced: complete insecurity, the threat of violence. An international investigation must have a say here. ”
To date, over 4.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country into neighboring regions, according to the United Nations.
“Being a migrant is hard both mentally and physically because you have to start all over again,” Zelenska said of the situation. “What is it like to live when you can’t even wear your personal clothes? How to explain to a child why she is not sleeping in her bed? This is a test you would not wish on anyone. ”
Above all, Zelenska said that she, in the “same way as other Ukrainians,” desires only peace.
“I, like every mother and wife, constantly worry about my husband and do everything to keep my children safe,” she said before calling on the world to continue talking out about the atrocities her people are facing every single day.
She also urged the world to have compassion as more Ukrainians flee the war. “Most of our people have been abroad before, but they didn’t plan on being refugees. So: Treat them as one of your own,” she pleaded. “The main thing these mothers and children dream of is to return home, to reunite their families. So help them adapt, please – home, work, school for children – until they can return.”
“What matters here is not what I think, but what is really happening,” she added. “Continue going to protests, continue to demand that your governments take action. Ukrainians are the same as you, but just over a month ago, our lives changed radically. Ukrainians did not want to leave their homes. But so often they did not have homes left. “
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