First lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska warned that a potential Ukrainian defeat could spur global instability in a speech at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall.
“If we were to imagine that Ukraine is defeated, I think that it would be a defeat for the whole world,” Zelenska said at the Sept. 21 event.
“That would mean that if you have force, if you have power, if you have opportunities and resources, you can do anything you want,” Zelenska added. “You can be a tyrant. You can seize other countries, other territories. Under these situations, it means that no one is safe in this world.”
Zelenska stressed the importance of supporting Ukraine — including vulnerable communities and schoolchildren — before hundreds of campus community members at the event, hosted by the Office of the President and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS).
Zelenska, who has made education a focus of her tenure as first lady, said the Russian invasion of Ukraine has particularly disrupted children’s ability to learn.
“Our first graders, who went to school for the very first time, spent their first day of school in bomb shelters,” Zelenska said. “Over the last two years, the Russian shelling in Ukraine damaged 81 universities. And that’s just buildings. They can be rebuilt. What’s worse is that people are dying.”
During her visit, Zelenska donated to Georgetown books on Ukrainian history and literature as part of her Ukrainian Bookshelf project, which has donated 47,000 books to libraries in 40 countries.
Zelenska praised university education for molding students into people able to take on global challenges.
“I am sure this is a sort of classical university spirit, where people want to get to the bottom of things, to understand, to research, and that’s very important in the time of hardship that we are experiencing,” Zelenska said.
“And I think that it is exactly the people who can feel, who can sincerely feel, deeply feel the injustices of the world, who take them as a challenge for themselves, they have a future,” Zelenska added.
Zelenska’s visit to the Hilltop came just before her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, met with President Joe Biden at the White House. Zelensky’s visit to Washington, D.C., comes as Biden is attempting to secure an additional $24 billion more in military and humanitarian aid from U.S. Congress for Ukraine, as Ukrainians are struggling to move forward with their counteroffensive against Russian troops.
Before Zelenska’s visit to campus, Zelensky also met with members of Congress, speaking with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he will not hold a public meeting where Zelensky can address members of Congress, as he did last December.
Melanne Verveer, GIWPS executive director and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, introduced Zelenska at the event.
When Verveer asked how Ukranians have persevered throughout the war, Zelenska said they have had no choice but to keep going.
“I’ll start with a simple answer. It’s a matter of survival. We want to live. And that’s why you’re going to fight, and you’re going to hold on as long as possible,” Zelenska said. “We’re together, we’re not torn away from one another, so to stay together and to foster this resilience and to believe in victory. And this belief does not fade. This is what we need. This faith keeps us afloat.”
In December, GIWPS awarded Zelenska the Hillary Rodham Clinton Award, which recognizes women for their leadership and activism for women’s rights around the world. Georgetown University President John DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) presented Zelenka with the award at the event Thursday, as she was not able to attend the December ceremony in person.
DeGioia hailed Ukrainians, including international students, who have persevered throughout the war.
“We have been witness to the displacement of children and their families from their homes, the disruption of education, the destruction of institutions, infrastructure and entire regions and the enormous toll this has had for the Ukrainian people,” DeGioia said at the event.
“We have also seen extraordinary resilience and creativity, a Ukrainian people who continue to fight to pursue education, to care for one another, who support their country and its freedom in any way they can,” DeGioia added.
Zelenska said the West needs to continue paying attention to the conflict in Ukraine because Ukraine is a bulwark in the global push for democracy over autocracy.
“No one can feel safe in a world where might is right, who is strong is in charge. And this is why we need to keep the focus of the attention of the world on this impossibly tragic and terrifying situation that is happening to Ukraine right now,” Zelenska said. “To turn a blind eye would mean to turn your back to your own future.”