Olena Zelenska
Ukraine's first lady: 'Don't get used to our grief'
02:29 - Source: CNN


(CNN) – When Russian troops invaded their homeland, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and first lady Olena Zelenska refused to flee or to give in, opting instead – like many of their countrymen and women – for defiance in the face of aggression.

While the President’s focus has been on the military fightback against Russian forces, the first lady has concentrated on humanitarian and children’s issues, working to raise global awareness of ordinary Ukrainians’ suffering as a result of the war.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed Zelenska over email. Her responses have been translated from Ukrainian.

Madam first lady, given everything that is going on, how are you and your family holding up?

It’s like walking a tightrope: If you start thinking how you do it, you lose time and balance. So, to hold on, you just must go ahead and do what you do. In the same way, as far as I know, all Ukrainians hold on.

Many of those who escaped from the battlefields alone, who saw death, say the main cure after the experience is to act, to do something, to be helpful for somebody. I am personally supported by the fact that I try to protect and support others. Responsibility disciplines.

When you became first lady, you pledged to make children a centerpiece of your work. How devastating has it been to see Ukrainian children, including your own, suffer through a war zone?

And so it was: Children and their needs were one of the main areas of my work, along with the introduction of … equal rights for all Ukrainians. Before the war we launched a reform of school nutrition, preparing for it for several years, to make it tasty and healthy at the same time so that children get sick less.

How do I feel now, you ask? I feel we were thrown years and decades back.

Refugees fleeing Ukraine arrive in Zahony, Hungary, on March 10. Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes since Russia invaded in late February.

Now we are not talking about healthy food, but about food in general. It’s about the survival of our children! We are no longer discussing, as before, what is the best equipment for schools – [instead] education for millions of children is under question.

We can’t talk about a healthy lifestyle for children – the number one goal is to save [them] at all.

Half of our children were forced to go abroad; thousands were physically and psychologically injured. On February 23 [the day before Russia invaded Ukraine], they were ordinary European students with a schedule and plans for the holidays.

Imagine that you have built and renovated a house and just put flowers on the windowsill; and now it is destroyed, and on the ruin you must light a fire to keep warm. This is what has happened to our children’s policies and to each family in general.

Tell us about the work you have been doing to support Ukrainian women and child refugees? What more can the world do to help on this front?

I am working in several directions now. In the summer, we managed to create the summit of the world’s first ladies and gentlemen, and now my colleagues are real allies in this.

First, we evacuate our most vulnerable – children with [cancer], [those with] disability and orphans – to countries that agree to accept them for treatment and rehabilitation. The main route passes through Poland, and from there to other European countries.

Secondly, we are importing incubators to Ukraine to support newborns in cities that are being bombed by Russians. In many hospitals there are power outages, and the lives of children are in danger. Therefore, we need devices that save lives without interruption. Two such devices have already been delivered and eight more incubators are planned to be delivered.

Third, we are accelerating the adaptation of refugees – children and their mothers – to the new location, because humanitarian aid alone is not enough: Children need accelerated socialization and school in a new place. In particular, this applies to thousands of children with autism who have found themselves abroad. We are now working to make it easier for them to access classes, otherwise their development will simply stop.

Together with the embassies, we are coordinating events in support of Ukraine – several international concerts have already raised money for humanitarian aid for Ukrainians.

Volodymyr Zelensky and Olena Zelenska attend a memorial service in Kyiv in February -- shortly before the Russian invasion began.

Have you been able to see your husband since the conflict began?

Volodymyr and his team actually live in the President’s office. Due to the danger, my children and I were forbidden to stay there. So, for more than a month we communicate only by phone.

The whole world has been inspired by your husband’s wartime leadership of Ukraine. You married him in 2003 and have known him since you were both in university. Did you always know he had this in him?

I always knew that he was and would be a reliable support for me. Then he became a wonderful father and support for our family. And now he has shown the same traits.

He has not changed. It’s just that more people saw it through my eyes.