Children living without their parents is not a rare phenomenon at all in Moldova. Due to work emigration, dismantled families have become not the exception, but the norm. Local and national NGOs have stepped in – politicians, however, are still not ready to take action.
When TV journalist Lucia Tăut’s documentary film, Legământ, premiered in Chișinău cinemas last September, the director was surprised at the strong emotional reaction of her audience: She had not expected so many people to cry. Legământ, Romanian for “vow” (the English title is Family Ties), tells the story of 38-year-old Eduard, who was born in a small village in northern Moldova to a Moldovan mother and a Cape Verde father. He grew up in Moldova without his parents: His father had to return to Cape Verde when his study visa expired; his mother went to Kamchatka in northern Russia to find work there. She never came back to Moldova except for short visits. Eduard lived together only with his grandparents from an early age. He himself says: “I don’t even remember the year my mother left. All I know is that she left for a month…”
‘Parent drain’ as the consequence of economic decline
Eduard’s case is both exceptional and exemplary for Moldova’s today’s society. Back in Soviet times, there was only little migration from non-Soviet countries to Moldova. His father being a foreigner was a peculiarity. At the same time, Eduard’s fate is exemplary for that of so many Moldovans who grew up, or are still growing up, without their parents. In 2015, more than 41,000 children were left at home without at least one of their biological parents, due to them going abroad. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova has experienced an extreme economic decline. Confrontation with economic instability, collapsing incomes and rapidly rising unemployment caused people to start emigrating from Moldova on a large scale in the first half of the 1990s. As a result, not only is the country constantly losing its national workforce, but it also faces a vicious circle as this parent drain is inevitably followed by brain-drain as young people tend to go to study or work abroad more often if their parents have already left Moldova.
Representatives of civil society criticise that the government is not providing a systematic solution to the problem. Instead of actually tackling social issues, politicians focus on anti-homosexual and anti-abortion rhetoric and on promoting the preservation of traditional values, such as the nuclear family. Violeta Avram, who works as a local co-ordinator for the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung, emphasises the relevance of the problem: “We will have to deal with the consequences of a whole generation traumatised in just a few years, when these children become adults”.
Deinstitutionalisation as a reforming process
There are children who are not as lucky as Eduard, who was raised by his grandmother. Some end up left completely on their own. It has become harder to fall back on relatives, as the mass emigration has left the extended family network in Moldova very weak. Putting children into residential care has been a common practice in the past. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Moldova had the highest rate of institutionalised children of all European countries. This is rapidly changing – in 2004, there were 14,000 children living in institutions in Moldova, now the amount has dropped to under 1000. There has been an increase in the use of family-based alternatives, such as foster care. Two major organisations are currently working on the deinstitutionalisation in Moldova and have, to a considerable degree, contributed to reforming the system. One of them is Keystone Moldova: Executive director, Ludmila Malcoci, names various reasons why their work is so important: Circumstances in some of the residential institutions in Moldova are almost prison-like, with up to 16 children sleeping in one room, children who have no personal belongings and especially disabled children who are in no way included in society. In her experience, these children lack certain ‘life-skills’; they do not know anything about financial management and the value of money, they have no routine in doing simple things, such as using public services, taking the bus, buying bread, going to a doctor, or having relationships with their neighbours. They have not learned how to plan their life and career, and they often have difficulties raising their own children afterwards. Liliana Rotaru, chairperson of CCF Moldova (“copil, comunitate, familie” – child, community, family), the second organisation working towards deinstitutionalisation, describes the other problems facing the institutions; most often, orphanages and children’s homes are placed far outside in village outskirts, sometimes miles away from the nearest town. Due to this segregation, children do often not know that there is a world beyond and Rotaru adds that which is even more severe: “Children have no role model, no personal attachment to someone they can look up to. The staff have to look after too many children and they often carry out only one task; division of responsibility is more efficient. The staff have been institutionalised as well”. CCF Moldova’s stated main goal is to unify families, and the organisation finds foster parents for children placed in institutions. Since they began their work in 2004, CCF has contributed to the closure of 10 institutions, which Rotaru considers a great success on the way to reforming the country.
Ludmila Malcoci, Keystone Moldova / Ludmila Malcoci
Liliana Rotaru, CCF Moldova / ION Buga, CFF
Euro-scepticism among Euro-orphans?
Could it be that these so-called Euro-orphans, having lost their parents to other European countries for economic reasons, view the EU less favourably, or are not as enthusiastic about it as their parents? Rotaru negates: “Nevertheless, frankly-speaking, Europe is where the money comes from”. The absence of parents is emotionally-challenging, yet the transfer of remittances may provide better living conditions for the children left behind and, nowadays, due to new technologies, there are more and easier ways to stay in touch. It is even possible to communicate daily. According to Rotaru, the situation was far more tragic ten or twenty years ago when, at times, a mother could not come to visit her child for several years. Until 2014, Moldovans faced visa restrictions in the EU member states, which meant that those leaving Moldova to work in different EU countries – mostly Italy – who did not hold a Romanian passport, stayed and worked there illegally. For this reason, they could not take their children with them, or take the risk of visiting their children back home. The situation partly changed in 2014, when Moldovans could go and stay abroad legally and were, therefore, also able to come home more often. Moreover, nowadays it is much easier for Moldovans to obtain a Romanian passport and thus become an EU citizen with the right to settle in any EU country. However, children still suffer from these long-distance relationships and are miserable when separated from their parents for a long period of time. Even so, as Rotaru mentioned, this is not yet manifesting itself in resentment towards the EU.
No open debate on grievous childhood
Wrinkles, his balding head and the melancholic, thoughtful look on his face make Eduard look older than 37, and yet, as soon as he starts talking, he seems younger; his witty charm and winsome smile are that of a youthful bachelor. When asked by his father why he still has no children, he jokes: “I don’t know how to make them”. Eduard has never seen his father in real life, they only talk via Skype. It may not be a coincidence that he works as a telecommunications engineer, he himself says that what he likes about his job is that it helps to “unite people”. Telecommunications allows him to make contact with his father and other relatives in Cape Verde, as well as to stay in touch with his mother, with whom he talks regularly via Skype. However, there are still the rare times when he picks up his guitar to play old songs about how much he misses his mother and how very much he wishes to see her again. Eduard’s story moved the spectators to tears, not only because the film depicts his biography in an authentic and comprehensible manner, but also because a lot of them saw themselves in his place and their own story being told through his.
According to Lucia, people in Moldova do not talk openly about their fate. It is not taboo to do so, there are just other more urgent, overshadowing problems the country faces, mostly economic ones. Material need is in the foreground. Moldova’s children left behind are neither a topic of public discourse, nor on the political agenda of the country. Lucia’s film may change that a little.