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First lady Jill Biden spent part of Mother's Day in Ukraine

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

First lady Jill Biden spent part of Mother's Day in Ukraine. She met with first lady Olena Zelenska, a woman who has been in hiding since Russia first began its invasion in February. Biden made this covert trip during a visit to Slovakia. NPR's Scott Detrow is traveling with the first lady and sent this report.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Biden began her day at a bus depot in Kosice, Slovakia. The depot has become a nonstop processing center for Ukrainian refugees heading west. Biden walked through the station, stopping to speak to refugees.

JILL BIDEN: Oh, she's a little shy (laughter). Hello. How are you? Hello. Nice to see you.

JULIA: Hello, my name is Julia.

BIDEN: Julia?

VICTORIA KUTOCHA: Julia.

BIDEN: Julia.

DETROW: Seven-year-old Julia may have been shy, but her mother, Victoria Kutocha, wasn't. Kutocha told Biden she and her children left western Ukraine after repeated missile strikes in nearby cities.

KUTOCHA: Even now, when we speak with you, it's air alarm in Ukraine.

DETROW: They've been in Slovakia for two months. Her husband is still in Ukraine fighting in the army.

BIDEN: So you haven't seen him in two months, since you've been here?

KUTOCHA: Yes, and I have not - now our life is from message to message.

DETROW: It's not a normal situation, Kutocha said. She said her life is divided between before and after when the war began February 24. Biden asked Kutocha how she explains the war to her children. She paused and said she couldn't.

KUTOCHA: How? I cannot explain that I give you life, but I cannot protect you.

BIDEN: Yes.

KUTOCHA: I cannot explain.

DETROW: Biden gave both Victoria and Julia a hug. As she walked away, the first lady whispered to Victoria, stay strong.

BIDEN: Stay strong.

DETROW: Then Biden headed about 60 miles east to the Slovakia-Ukraine border. After talking to aid workers who help refugees crossing into Slovakia, Biden got back into her motorcade and then headed east, not west.

First lady Jill Biden's motorcade just crossed into Ukraine. This is an unannounced part of the trip. She just visited the border crossing with Slovakia's prime minister.

The motorcade sped to Uzhhorod, a small city in the southwest corner of Ukraine. It pulled up to a school that's been turned into a shelter for displaced Ukrainians. Biden got out holding a bouquet of flowers. Suddenly, Olena Zelenska stepped out of a black SUV that was being guarded by a Ukrainian soldier. Ukraine's first lady has been in hiding, along with her and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's two children, ever since the war began. This was the first time she'd been seen in public. The two first ladies headed inside to talk in a small back room.

BIDEN: I wanted to come on Mother's Day. I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop, and this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.

DETROW: Speaking through an interpreter, Zelenska thanked Biden for coming.

OLENA ZELENSKA: (Through interpreter) Because we understand what it takes for the U.S. first lady to come here during a war, where the military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day and even today.

DETROW: Biden spent about two hours in Ukraine. Her press secretary says in private, Biden asked Zelenska how she was doing - as a woman and a mother, not as a first lady. He says Zelenska responded that she gets to hold her children's hands every night, even though she can't be with her husband, who's mostly running the government from a bunker in Kyiv.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Bratislava, Slovakia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.