“I crossed the border with my 3-year-old son and everything I was thinking about was how to save my child from a city that was bombed,” Anastasia Konovalova, a Ukrainian refugee who is helping teach at the Uruguay School, told Biden. “Thank God the Romanian people were here. I think even the Romanians didn’t expect that they could be so wonderful, because you don’t expect that from people.”
The first lady, who is on a four-day trip to Europe, toured classrooms and also met with students, several of whom were refugees from Ukraine
. She listened intently to Konovalova and two other mothers, at times visibly moved by the recounting of their harrowing journeys.
“I think mothers will do anything for their children. … I think you’re amazingly strong and resilient,” Biden said. “It’s just amazing that the Romanian people have taken you into their homes and into their hearts.”
Despite the hospitality they have received, most of the children Biden encountered Saturday expressed a desire to return home to Ukraine.
“I want to return to my father” was the message Mila, a 7-year-old from Kyiv, wrote on a blue and yellow paper cutout of her hand. Her 5-year-old classmate, too young to write a message of her own, drew pictures that her teacher told Biden were meant to convey the longing she felt for her home. “I want to go to Odessa as soon as possible. That’s my wish,” the 5-year-old said.
Biden toured the school Saturday with Carmen Iohannis, the first lady of Romania, who — like her American counterpart — is an educator and has kept her job as an English teacher
at a local college during her tenure. The two women had a private lunch at the presidential residence before heading to the school.
“You never know what you’re getting into, what you’re walking into,” Biden said of meeting Iohannis for the first time. “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. I mean, stuff that just women do when they get together, and they feel like they have something in common.”
Biden stressed that beyond the small talk, the objective of the meeting was to talk about hope for Ukraine’s future and the “strong alliance” between the US and Romania.
“We feel safer knowing that [the United States] back us up,” Iohannis said. “Sticking together, being united is very important to us.”
Earlier Saturday, Biden held a listening session at the United States Embassy here in Bucharest, where she was briefed by leaders of humanitarian efforts around Romania about the needs and capabilities of a country grappling with thousands of additional residents. Romania has taken in close to 900,000 refugees since the war began ten weeks ago, with approximately 7,000 Ukrainians arriving daily, according to Pablo Zapata, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who participated in the discussion at the Embassy.
Following her visit to the school, Biden departed for Slovakia, where she is expected to spend two days, including visits to a refugee center and two schools. She will also meet with Slovak President Zuzana Caputova
, the country’s first female president. Her European trip has been timed around Mother’s Day
on Sunday, an occasion that might feel vastly different for the Ukrainian mothers and children who fled their homes.
“Wasn’t it heartbreaking?” Biden said to assembled media on the tarmac Saturday before boarding her plane for Slovakia. “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 that while she felt positive about an eventual resolution to the Ukraine conflict, the fear of the unknown remains.
“Because we don’t know. We don’t know. We’re all hopeful, right?” she said. “We wake up every morning and think, ‘This has to end,’ but it still keeps going on and on.”