I had the unusual opportunity to meet Sandra Roelofs, the Republic of Georgia’s first lady, when she and her husband were on a state visit to Washington, DC last spring. While President Mikheil Saakashvili met with Bush and other state department officials, Roelofs toured medical facilities in the area.
I was struck by her genuine commitment to making a difference. Originally from the Netherlands, Roelofs was not raised as a member of the political elite. She met her husband in Strasbourg while studying at a human rights institute and they were married before Saakashvili was recruited into politics in 1995. After they moved to Tblisi, she worked in a number of professional positions until her husband was elected President. She also makes it very clear that she did not take her husband’s last name, and that she is the “first lady,” not the “President’s wife.”
As first lady, she has continued to support several causes. She has focused primarily on medical care in Georgia – a passion that was renewed after giving birth to her second son in a Georgian hospital. She was struck by the care she received from her nurses and decided to enroll in nursing school. She was due to complete nursing school this summer, and begin working in a clinic about twice a week.
At the same time, she also continued her work championing reproductive health. In 1998 (six years before Saakashvili was elected President), Roelofs founded SOCO, a charitable organization that today focuses primarily on improving maternal and child health in Georgia. This blends with her role as chair of the Reproductive Health National Council under the Georgian Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. She has been an international advocate for many issues.
Now I wonder what life has been like for her since the conflict with Russia started. Will she still go into work as a nurse a couple days each week? If her husband is ousted as president, will she independently continue to have an impact on Georgian society? Would she return home?
I’m fascinated by these questions, and have wondered about this a lot since the conflict began. Roelofs seems to be in a very difficult situation, with little control over where her life goes from here. With a platform to some extent independent from her husband’s political career, how will she ride out the conflict that appears to be ripping apart this country, and how will she continue her advocacy work?
She has been in Beijing with the Georgian Olympic delegation (which includes 2 Brazilians) for the past week, and was part of the decision to stay at the Games. The only news relating her to the conflict is a condolence note she wrote when a Dutch journalist was killed by Russian forces.