Maxim Dondyuk for TIME

A writer who worked behind the scenes, she never asked for a spotlight. A mother of two, she never asked to become the heart of a nation at war.

Olena Zelenska didn’t expect to become a warrior for the people of Ukraine, but she has answered this call with selfless courage.

I met the First Lady last Mother’s Day in a small town near the edge of her country, just a few months after Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression began. Instinctively, we embraced—two mothers, two nations, coming together for peace. In the strain of her smile, I could see the weight she carried: the sleep lost to the percussion of falling bombs, the tales of atrocities that she would never forget. In her eyes, however, was the fierce determination and dignity that has defined her people.

She could take her family and flee. What mother would blame her? Yet, she stays. She stays because freedom and democracy deserve defenders. She stays to show the world that heart and hope can make even the largest tyrant seem small. She stays for her children—for their future, and the future of all Ukrainians.

Olena Zelenska is a mother. Protector. The pride of her nation. A beacon of hope for the people she loves.

Biden is First Lady of the United States

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