VALEA DANULUI, Romania — For millions of Romanians, migration has been an economic lifeline. But for 12-year-old Stefan Ciurea, the thought of his mother leaving to work as a maid in Italy was worse than death: he hanged himself with a leather horsewhip from the branch of a cherry tree.
After taking one last photograph of himself with his cellphone, Stefan, a quiet, diminutive boy who collected foreign coins and made toy swords out of scrap metal, posted a note to his chest.
“I’m sorry we are parting upset,” the note said, referring to his pained efforts to stop his mother, Alexandrina, from migrating to Rome, part of an exodus of one-third of Romania’s active work force. “You don’t have to worry about my funeral because a man owes us money for timber. My sister, you should study hard. Mom, you should take care of yourself because the world is harsh. Please take care of my puppy.”
Two years later, Ms. Ciurea, a 38-year-old single mother, is a cleaner in Rome, one of an estimated three million Romanians who have migrated westward over the past five years. She said Stefan’s suicide had given her a stomach ulcer. After his death, she waited a year before deciding to leave her two other children, who were teenagers, behind.
But in the end, economics prevailed: she could earn about $770 a month cleaning houses in Italy, more than three times her wage as a seamstress in Romania.
“Stefan’s death is the tragedy of my life,” she said in a telephone interview from Rome. “But I left because I was poor and couldn’t feed my children. If I could, I would come back to Romania tomorrow.”
Many in this poor Balkan country of 22 million dreamed of escaping during decades of dictatorship. The exodus of poor, rural Romanians began after the fall of Communism in 1989 and intensified two years ago when Romania joined the European Union. Spain, Italy and a handful of other countries softened immigration rules to attract less expensive workers from the East.
Diligent Romanians became the strawberry pickers, construction workers and housecleaners of choice, doing jobs that workers in richer neighboring countries no longer wanted.
But while migration has brought economic gains — migrants sent home nearly $10.3 billion in remittances last year — it has also exacted a heavy toll on the country left behind.
The migration ripped apart the social fabric, creating a generation of what some sociologists call the “strawberry orphans.” An estimated 170,000 children have one or both parents working abroad, according to a recent study by the Soros Foundation.
The same study found that children with parents abroad were more likely to abuse alcohol and cigarettes, have problems with the police and underperform in school. Conversely, some children who blame themselves for their parents’ departure become straight-A students in the hope of luring them back.
Denisa Ionescu, a psychologist who works with the children of migrants, said they were at higher risk for depression, especially if it was the mother who left, while some of the children suffer from feelings of abandonment.
“In Romania, it is the mother who cares for the children,” Ms. Ionescu said. “So when the mother leaves, the child’s world falls apart.”
Of the children left behind, 14 have committed suicide over the past three years, according to researchers with the Soros Foundation. It is unclear what role their parents’ leaving played in the children’s decisions to take their lives, except in the case of Stefan.
But psychologists say the effects of migration have been especially acute because Romania is a largely rural country where close family ties underpin all aspects of life. In some cases, migration causes already dysfunctional families to implode.
Gheorghe Ciurea, Stefan’s 16- year-old half brother, said Stefan was a quiet, affable boy. But when he learned that his mother was leaving and he would be in the care of Stefan’s hard-drinking father, who never married Stefan’s mother, he locked himself in his room and refused to come out for days.
After the suicide, Stefan’s father moved out. Now Gheorghe, whose own father is dead, lives alone in their cramped, messy house in this village about 105 miles northwest of Bucharest.
He said he dropped out of high school because he could not afford the tuition. He does odd construction jobs to scrape by. The house is freezing, and he wears a wool coat inside. To pass the time, he plays backgammon. His sister, Alina, 17, lives with her boyfriend. Being alone has forced him to learn to cook. He calls his mother every day.
“I miss my mother,” he said from Stefan’s room. “At some point, she says, she will bring me to Italy so I can work in construction, but I am still waiting. I am still waiting.”
Outside, down a dirt road, dozens of new homes have sprouted, the product of toil abroad. Vasile Dina, the vice mayor of Valea Danului, said he could barely meet the demand for new housing permits. But the wealth came at a price.
“We have more tax revenues, nice cars on the road, people send their children to university in Bucharest,” Mr. Dina said. “But the sad truth is that if we were still living under Communism, Gheorghe would be going to school — not sitting at home by himself.”
Mihaela Stefanescu, who coordinated the study for the Soros Foundation, said the billions in remittances had helped eradicate extreme poverty and had empowered working mothers like Alexandrina Ciurea.
But she said the migration was also redefining the notion of the traditional Romanian family.
Many children of migrants live with grandparents, some of whom are not able to deal with the demands of rearing young children.
Divorce among migrants is rising, with sets of parents sometimes migrating to different countries. In extreme cases, children are abandoned or sent to orphanages, child advocates say. Some work as prostitutes or get involved with criminals.
An Emmy Award-winning documentary series, “Any Idea What Your Kid Is Doing Right Now?” shown on national television here, featured a family of six children left with their blind father after the mother went to work as a maid in Germany. She met another man and never returned. Soon, some of the children were forced to stop going to school and find work to survive.
Ms. Stefanescu said migrating parents were spoiling their children to allay guilt.
“People are going on spending sprees in order to overcompensate for their humiliation and guilt at having had to leave the country to support the family,” she said. “Migrant kids have new bikes and the latest mobile phones.”
Economists warn that the benefits of working abroad may prove short-lived, especially if the global economic downturn forces workers to return home to an economy that can no longer absorb them. Some companies dealt with worker shortages caused by the migration by importing workers from Turkey, China and India to fill jobs in construction, agriculture and textiles.
Tens of thousands of Romanians are already out of jobs in Spain and Italy, and alarm is growing that a mass return could overstretch an already teetering Romanian economy.“The short-term economic gains of migration will not justify the long-term costs,” said Radu Soviani, a leading economist. “It is a national tragedy.”