Remarks by Second Lady Jill Biden at the WIE Symposium in New York City

September 19, 2011

[As Prepared for Delivery]

Good afternoon.

Thank you Arianna for that warm introduction -- and thank you to Sarah, Donna and Arianna for the invitation to join you here today.

It is really wonderful and inspiring to be with such an amazing group of women. And especially women who are committed to taking action on so many critical issues both here in the United States and around the world.

For those of you who don't know me – as Arianna mentioned - I have been an educator for many years, and I continue to teach English full-time at a community college in Northern Virginia. In fact, I was grading papers on the way to this event because I'll be back at school tomorrow morning!

People are often surprised that I am still in the classroom every week, but the truth is – I can't imagine not teaching. The reason for me is very simple – it's the students. They truly are my heroes – many of my students work multiple jobs, take care of their families, and struggle just to make it to class. But they do it because they are committed to their education.

I am especially inspired by the female students -- some right out of high school, but many coming back after having children – looking to make a better life for themselves and their families. I see every day what a difference education makes so I am especially proud that the President is making real investments in education.

As a military mom, one of the best parts of my role as Second Lady is the time I spend meeting service members, military families, veterans and wounded warriors – people who honor us with their service across this country and around the world. Supporting military families is a passion that I share with my partner and friend Michelle Obama – and we are working hard to make sure that more Americans reach out and show appreciation for military families in their own communities.

I wanted to come here today to speak with you about another issue that is very close to my heart – and one that desperately needs the attention and leadership of everyone in this room.

Earlier this summer, I saw the news reports of the worst drought in 60 years in East Africa. I could not believe that I was seeing those terrible images again. The numbers were staggering: 12 million people at risk. 29,000 children dead in three months.

And it was clear that it was only getting worse.

The stories touched my heart and the images of the children haunted me. As a mother, I thought – we have to do more.

I asked my staff and those working on this issue at the White House what I could do to help – and several days later I found myself on the way to Kenya.

It's hard to convey all that we saw and experienced on that trip – so I would like to share a short video that I hope will bring the human face of the trip to life for all of you here:

(Video plays)

As you saw in the film, I traveled to a refugee camp in Dadaab where hundreds of thousands of people have fled. I met with families who had walked for days or weeks, often barefoot, with no possessions, desperate to find food and medical care.

I spent time with a mother who had walked for 15 days with her four malnourished children. Her baby was sick with diarrhea, an ailment which seems minor to us but in this circumstance is often fatal. Like many of the women in the camps, this mother had walked day and night, through very dangerous conditions to try to save her children.

One young woman in the camp recounted stories of women being attacked and raped on their way to the camp – often right in front of their children.

Just stop for a moment and try to imagine what it would be like to desperately seek food and water for your starving children, to walk hundreds of miles, facing the very real possibility of violence all along the way.

We heard one story that I cannot put out of my mind – a mother who was too weak to carry both of her children, had to choose, which she would try to save and which she would leave beside the road. How can any mother make this choice?

In the face of devastation and unimaginable challenges, these strong and resilient women are trying to make sure their families survive. They want what each of us wants: to insure a safe and healthy future for themselves and their children.

While the international community has mobilized and we are helping millions of people in the region – the scope and pace of this crisis is relentless. Without additional assistance, hundreds of thousands more could die. And most of those deaths will be children.

Unfortunately, a terrible drought is being complicated by a chaotic political situation in Somalia. People are facing not only hunger, but terrorism and violence, which are making it difficult to get aid into the country. That is why people are fleeing to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.

But there is hope.

On my visit I saw first-hand that even the smallest and simplest investments can save lives. Aid is working.

I saw two dollar measles vaccinations that literally mean the difference between life and death for children in these camps. I saw how ready-to-use therapeutic food treatments – costing under a dollar – each provide critical nutrition to malnourished children. And I saw how inexpensive oral rehydration packs can bring listless babies back to life.

I saw some of the progress being made from investments in long-term food security – innovative and improved crops and irrigation methods and new ways for farmers to market and transport their products. The goal of our aid is simple: to help create the conditions where such aid is no longer needed.

We all know these are tough times here at home – but we also know that Americans always respond to humanitarian crises – especially when a small donation can literally – literally save the life of child.

Already we are seeing individuals, members of the faith community, businesses and other organizations come together to make a difference in this crisis. The U.S. Agency for International Development is working with the Ad Council to produce a public awareness campaign called FORWARD. You can learn more about all of these efforts at

This room is full of creative, inspirational and enterprising women and I imagine most of you are actively engaged in your communities. I hope that all of you here today continue to look for ways to support other women and to find ways to share your strength through service.

The power of the community of women is immense. Let's put it to good use. We truly can save lives.

One of the mothers I met at the refugee camp took my hand and asked me to please help save her children. I hope that everyone in this room will join me in answering her plea.

Thank you.

Jill Biden, Remarks by Second Lady Jill Biden at the WIE Symposium in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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