Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska called for the world to continue to pay attention to the war in Ukraine and underscored the dire conditions Ukrainian students face during a visit to Georgetown University on Sept. 21.
“I understand that there might be some fatigue. But to turn a blind eye would mean to turn your back to your own future,” said Zelenska. “No one can feel safe in a world where might is right, where who is strong is who is in charge.”
Zelenska called for a Ukraine where students don’t have to read in bomb shelters — where they can study and learn in a university just like Georgetown students.
“That students just like you would be able to study peacefully in their own country instead of dying from bombs in the streets of their own cities,” she said. “Literature teaches us that evil, aggression has to be punished. This should not be [the] precedent in the world. This is what our country is fighting for. I believe that with the help of people who care about the world, this will come to pass.”
Zelenska was visiting the U.S. with her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who addressed the U.N. General Assembly and met with President Joe Biden and members of Congress on the same day.
Before joining him at the White House, Zelenska met with Ukrainian students at Georgetown, which she called “a friend of Ukraine,” and addressed faculty, staff and students at an on-campus event hosted by the Georgetown Office of the President and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS). GIWPS Executive Director Ambassador Melanne Verveer moderated a discussion with Zelenska, who gifted the university with 260 Ukrainian books as part of a project to share Ukrainian literature with libraries around the world.
“We’re honored to have First Lady Zelenska here with us, during this special visit to Washington, D.C., to share her perspective and reflections on this moment in her country,” said DeGioia at the event. “She has provided invaluable leadership in her role as First Lady and has become an important voice for peace in the international community.”
The War’s Impact on Education
In her opening address, Zelenska shared how the school year began differently in Ukraine this month than it did in the U.S. Many first-graders spent their first day of classes in bomb shelters. More than 80 universities have been damaged or destroyed by airstrikes since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But buildings can be rebuilt, she said.
“We have students that have been killed when they went to the frontline to defend Ukraine. They’re remembered by their universities, but unfortunately we cannot bring them back to life,” she said.
Her Olena Zelenska Foundation is currently raising funds to add bomb shelters to schools so that students can attend school in-person.
“Only one third of Ukrainian children go to school…If they don’t have a bomb shelter in the school, children cannot attend it…they have to do distance learning” explained Zelenska.
Bringing a Ukrainian Bookshelf to Georgetown
The First Lady also spoke about the “Ukrainian Bookshelf Project,” which has shared Ukrainian literature with libraries in 40 countries.
“We want people to have firsthand knowledge of Ukraine: what we’re like, what we think, where our roots are,” said Zelenska.
The project, she said, is saving Ukraine’s books.
“Our people are fighting for survival, and so are our books. Dozens of libraries have been burned down by Russian missiles,” said Zelenska.
But it’s also saving people too.
“You can always see people reading in bomb shelters during air raid alerts because books are some kind of a mental escape,” said Zelenska. “You can see books in the hand of our IDPs because this is something that reminds them of home. You can see our soldiers reading in the trenches because this is, at least for a few moments, normal life again.”
Honoring Zelenska for Her Wartime Leadership
During the event, Georgetown presented Zelenska with the 2022 Hillary Rodham Clinton Award, which she had received virtually last December. The award recognizes exceptional global leaders who advance women’s rights and work toward creating a more peaceful and secure world.
Zelenska was recognized for her work to rally the world to support Ukraine and for her support of the well-being of Ukraine’s children and addressing widespread needs related to mental health, domestic violence and humanitarian assistance through her foundation and platforms.
“The award recognizes First Lady Zelenska’s exceptional leadership and her tireless efforts to rally the world to support Ukraine and its struggle for human rights, freedom, and democracy against the brutal assault,” said Ambassador Melanne Verveer.
Gratitude Makes Us More Resilient
After her opening address, Zelenska spoke with GIWPS Executive Director Ambassador Melanne Verveer about the significant role women play in defending Ukraine, how Ukrainians stay resilient and the “ambassador” role of students from Ukraine.
“You see Ukrainian women everywhere, it’s a demonstration of equality that’s become more apparent during the war,” she said.
She described the ways in which the Ukrainian people stay resilient during tragic times: gratitude and connection.
“It’s a matter of survival, we want to live. That’s why we’re going to fight, to hold on as long as possible.”
“Anyone who’s aware in the world has an opportunity to help Ukraine.”
And she shared that she was hopeful the Ukrainian students present that day would be able to return to Ukraine someday.
“We want you to come back home,” she said. “I’m sure that the country will do everything possible. Of course security is first, and that is why we are fighting for our long awaited victory so that all of our children and all of our adults can come back.”
Inspiring the Next Generation of Ukrainian Students
Olha Kovach (SFS’26), a Ukrainian student who attended the event, asked Zelenska what students and professionals could do to support vulnerable populations who are suffering during the war in Ukraine.
She was inspired by the First Lady’s response to promote international awareness about the war as well as Ukraine’s diverse culture and history to counter Russian propaganda and misinformation.
“It meant a lot to me personally to hear her speaking about Ukrainian unity and recognizing everything the Ukrainians have been through in the past year and a half,” Kovach said. “Ukrainians back home are the people who are fighting for my right to identify as a Ukrainian and share this part of me with others. Therefore, as a Ukrainian student at Georgetown, it’s important for me to maintain a strong connection with my country and to support my fellow Ukrainians in any way possible.”
Kovach, who’s a member of the Georgetown University Ukrainian Society, said she was particularly struck by Zelenska’s remarks about the strong ties that bind Ukrainians together no matter where they live, and their willingness to join in the war efforts however they can.
“In hard times like this, mutual support and understanding from fellow Ukrainians guide us in the fight for the freedom of our country,” she said. “This emphasis particularly resonated with me, as we, Ukrainians at Georgetown, also rely on it and continue advocating for Ukraine and people affected by the war.”
She said she’s grateful for international support and echoed the First Lady’s call: To continue to find ways to support Ukrainian people in this challenging time.