Friday, March 28, 2008

Home Alone in Romania
Wednesday, Mar. 26, 2008
By Mihai Radu and Stephanie Kirchner

In the court yard of the small house made of straw-and-clay bricks, 60-year-old Aurica Draghici washes her laundry in a wooden tub. She doesn't seem surprised by the arrival of visitors. "I was expecting a package from Spain," she explains.

Aurica Draghici lives in the small southern Romanian village of Peretu, where most locals have traditionally been farmers. Some have jobs at a ball-bearing factory in Alexandrina, the nearest town, but a growing number, among them Aurica's eldest son Florian and his wife Adriana, have left to find work abroad.

Florian Draghici left two years ago, following his wife, who had gone to Spain three years earlier to work as a nanny. They left their two children Catalina, 14, and Stefan, 6, in the care of their grandmother. Aurica's other son, Gabriel, and his 6-year-old daughter, Andra, also live in the house. Gabriel has been looking after the child by himself for two years now — his wife Florentina, while working in Spain, fell in love with another man.

Grandma Aurica points at the marks on the wall from the flood, which entered the house in 2005. "My son left to save money to rebuild the house," she explains. "He said until they have enough money to start with the foundation, they are not going to come home".

The Draghicis are hardly the only family in Romania torn apart by migration. By some estimates, up to 2.5 million Romanians have left to work abroad. Adrian Vasilescu, spokesman for the Romanian National Bank, estimates that in 2007, around 7 billion euros ($11 billion) flowed into Romania in the form of remittance sent home by migrant workers.

Still, despite the financial benefits of migration for poor rural communities such as Peretu, one of the sadder side effects has been documented in a reported published last year by the Soros Foundation. It found that around 17% of all junior high school students — some 170,000 children — have one or both parents working abroad.

"I miss my parents very much", says Catalina, a short girl with a round face and a blond ponytail, "but I know that they went to Spain to make money for us, for our future. The last time I saw my mom was two or three years ago, and my dad one year ago. But I talk to them on the phone once or twice a week. I talk to my mom about intimate things, ask her advice. My grandmother raised me, so she is like a mother to me, but she was young in different times so there are certain things I can't talk to her about."

Catalina, who dreams of becoming a lawyer, wants to be able to make different choices than were available to her parents. "I want to be there for my family," she says. "I understand what my parents do, but..." she hangs her head.

Even if most kids with migrant parents are, like Catalina and Stefan, left in the care of their extended families, many of them suffer severe psychological effects, says Mihaela Stefanescu, coordinator of the Soros study. "These children usually encounter the same problems as children who lost their parents through divorce or death; loneliness, problems at school, psychological effects. There are things a parent can provide that a grandparent cannot; some of them just lose control over the children."

Short- or medium-term effects, according to Gabriela Tonk, deputy chief of the National authority for child protection also include "a higher risk that the child will suffer emotional, physical or sexual abuse. In extreme cases children are even recruited for prostitution or a criminal network."

Adds Stefanescu, "These children have to be monitored, so nothing tragic happens."

That's a lesson Romania has had to learn the hard way. A year ago, a series of newspaper reports about children committing suicide after their parents had gone to work abroad shocked the country. One of them was 12-year-old Andrei Ciurea, who stayed behind with his brothers, aged 16 and 17, when his mother left to work as a maid in Italy. Newspapers printed a note reading "I am sorry that we have to part in dispute ... Sister keep going to school, Mom take care of the house for the world is bad ... Please take care of my puppy."

Last year, the Romanian National Authority for child protection responded by launching a program to improve the country's social assistance network. But that doesn't extend as far as being able to extend psychological support to the children of migrant workers in rural villages such as Peretu.

"Our school does not have a counselor at the moment, but we need one," says Magda Radoi, headmaster of Peretu's school. "Around 20% of our students have parents who are working abroad."

But where the government has failed to provide support, teachers have risen to the challenge. Two history teachers made a virtue out of necessity and, with the help of their students, transformed an empty classroom into a museum of Romanian peasant culture. One wall is covered with colorful blankets and rugs. There is antique furniture and other items that can be found in a traditional Romanian peasant's household. Photographs and historical documents on another wall tell the history of the local community.

"This classroom is empty since around 50 or 60 kids left our school to live with their parents in Spain, so we thought we would organize an extracurricular activity. That way, especially the kids whose parents are abroad are under supervision and don't get into trouble," says Catalin Ionut Florea. "The kids were really enthusiastic," adds her colleague Marian Vinatoru. "We have collected about 500 historical artifacts and are planning to expand the collection to a second room."

Back at the Draghici's, little Stefan is outside the front gate, fishing in a ditch with three other children. "I don't miss my parents, I often talk to them on the phone", the six-year-old declares with a motionless face. "I asked them to send me a racing car, but I only got candy and a regular car. I also asked them to send me an extra paddling pool. I want to have one of my own, because my sister always jumps into the pool and makes me wet." But in spite of all the Western consumer bliss, Stefan admits that there is one thing he misses: "My mother used to sing me a song every night before I went to sleep. I used to sleep in one bed with my mother and my father, because we had no space." Now Stefan sleeps alone.

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