First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska took part in an event dedicated to the theme of reintegration of deported children after their return to Ukraine. The initiative was initiated by Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets at the Child Rights Protection Center.
Representatives of government authorities, civil organizations, and international experts were also invited to participating in the event, organized as part of the inaugural meeting of the International Coalition of Countries for the Return of Ukrainian Children illegally deported and forcibly displaced to Russia.
"Yesterday, on Saint Nicholas Day, eight more abducted children returned to Ukraine. This is an impressive achievement of the ombudsman's team. Until you realize that the overall number of abducted children is approaching 20,000. Each return requires months of work by hundreds of people. But I always emphasize: to help, you need to see not just statistics but the story of each individual, the story of a child. Only then can we provide the best assistance," Olena Zelenska said.
Currently, Ukraine has successfully returned 387 out of nearly 20,000 Russian Federation-abducted children.
"Behind each number is the fate of a child who was deported or forcibly displaced by the Russians," Dmytro Lubinets said.
During the event, some children, including Bohdan Yermokhin, shared their stories of abduction and return.
Olena Zelenska said that the main ways occupiers abducted Ukrainian children are taking them out from an orphanage, removing them from their families, or deceiving them under the pretext of vacation or assistance.
"So their being here with us, at home, is also a great merit of theirs. They are conscious, thoughtful people who, under pressure, had enough moral strength to stand their ground. To believe in home, family, and homeland. This helped us pull them out. And now you can imagine why it is so challenging to rescue younger children who cannot even speak for themselves yet. Each return is not just a statistic but a unique special operation, and it's international one. Russia does not engage in direct contact with us. That's why children go home through third countries with the help of many compassionate people. That's why global cooperation is so crucial," the First Lady said.
She expressed hope for the effective work of the International Coalition of Countries for the Return of Ukrainian Children. The initiative for its creation was voiced during a meeting of national security and diplomatic advisors held on October 28–29 in Malta. Representatives of 66 countries and international organizations participated in the meeting. Many participating countries supported this idea.
Furthermore, the release of all prisoners and the return of deported persons are separate points in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Peace Formula (point 4 "Release of prisoners and deported persons").
Olena Zelenska drew attention to the need to reintegrate the returned children into Ukrainian society.
"Bringing abducted children home is challenging. However, equally challenging is restoring their sense of home. Simply bringing them home and hugging them at the border is not enough. We need to build a dignified life for them here. So that our heroes today have opportunities for education and self-realization, just like their peers. So that children and their families who have experienced captivity receive psychological support. At the community level, they should have material and social support, without facing administrative difficulties, so they don't have to worry about survival. Therefore, our fundamental position should be that when they return to their homeland, they should be met by a family. Let it be an adoptive family, but a real one," the President's wife said.
The First Lady said that Ukraine is persisting on the development of family-based upbringing.
"In this case, it is our direct moral duty: a kidnapped child who had no parents or relatives should be surrounded by family conditions. Because only in a family is genuine moral return home possible. I call on all stakeholders – governmental and civil structures – to participate in the adaptation of returned children and develop programs for those we bring back. They should see not just the homeland but conditions and opportunities," Olena Zelenska concluded.