Cindy McCain on Her Next Chapter as an Ambassador in Rome — and the Hope and Heartache of Organizing Aid

"I'm deeply honored to be able to serve my country and to do it in such a way that we can have a deep impact," she tells PEOPLE

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Cindy McCain at Korczowa refugee center in Poland, at Ukrainian border. Photo: Department of State

Cindy McCain, widow of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, is relishing the value of her new role as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

Based in Rome, McCain spends her days in her office (surrounded by family photos) or traveling — her most recent trip was at the end of March, to Poland at the Ukrainian border surveying a U.N. World Food Programme warehouse outside of Rzeszow and at a Korczowa refugee center, where Ukrainians escaping Russian bombings and air strikes flooded the area.

"They're scared, they're terrified. ... They're traumatized from what they've seen or been through," she tells PEOPLE in a Zoom interview from her office in Italy. "And the Polish people have just so gently and so lovingly cared for them and are caring for them. It's truly remarkable. And I was just so proud to be there."

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Cindy McCain at the World Food Program warehouse outside of Rzeszow, Poland. Department of State

When not traveling — which she often is; in March, she traveled to Kenya, Madagascar and Poland — the new ambassador's days are filled with meetings with colleagues and organizations from other regions of the world working on food issues.

"I never thought I would ever be in this type of a situation or this type of a job ever," says McCain, 67, who was appointed by longtime family friend and now-President Joe Biden.

"It just wasn't something that was on my radar. I'm deeply honored to be able to serve my country and to do it in such a way that we can have a deep impact," she says. "Rome's amazing, and it's a dream come true as far as job placement goes."

RELATED VIDEO: Ukraine Man Reunites with His Dog After Getting Separated from Pet During Russia's Invasion

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Cindy McCain in Madagascar. Department of State

McCain's days also include frequent video calls with her children and grandchildren, including daughter Meghan and Meghan's daughter, Liberty Sage, now 1 ½.

"Oh, the babies, thank heavens for FaceTime and Zoom and everything else," she says. "That's how I see them right now. I have two grandbabies coming out [to visit] at the end of April, so it's very exciting. And of course their parents are coming with them."

It is a comfort for her difficult task of working on a worsening global food crisis due to Russia's invasion, as Ukraine provides about 50 percent of the grain bought by the World Food Programme, which provides food assistance.

Production has now been dramatically curtailed with farmers on the front lines and Russians putting "landmines in the agricultural fields," McCain tells PEOPLE. "And they've also mined the equipment that it's necessary to harvest with. We're not going to see much coming out of the Ukraine at all."

This has created a frightening ripple effect of a food crisis across the world. The head of the World Food Programme has described as "beyond anything we've seen since World War II."

"I was recently in Madagascar and it was a perfect example of what was happening because of this," McCain says. The WFP, she says, "has had to cut their rations by a third."

"We're faced with the decision right now: Do we take food from a hungry child and give it to a starving child? It's a tragic situation," she says, pointing to what she calls a looming famine in at least two parts of the world.

"As someone who has worked on these issues and others most of my adult life, I've never seen it like this. I've never seen it like this," McCain continues. "And the only person that can fix this is [Russian leader] Vladimir Putin, by pulling out and stopping this."

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Cindy and John McCain. Pier Marco Tacca/Getty

She hopes her late husband, a six-term senator who died in 2018 from brain cancer, "would be proud of me."

"He might have a good laugh though about the fact that I'm working on very serious food issues while living in Rome," says McCain, who last year published the memoir Stronger: Courage, Hope, and Humor in My Life with John McCain.

"But he was always, as you know, a big believer in service to the country," she goes on. "And so I'm just proud I can carry on as well."

McCain knows that many Americans right now wish to help Ukrainians and with other crises. For those who don't know what to do to make a difference, she has some advice.

"Realistically, it's impossible to be able to volunteer safely in Ukraine, or any of these regions right now," she says.

"But what you can do, organizations like the World Food Programme, UNICEF, UNHCR, all have foundations and they need money to be able to help feed people around the world," she says. "They are really seriously in the trenches doing the tough work right now."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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