Republic of Abandoned Children: Desperate Moldovans Head West without Families
Moldova was a relatively prosperous republic when it was still part of the Soviet Union. But now its ailing economy has driven roughly a quarter of its population abroad in search of better prospects. The victims are the thousands of children growing up back home alone.
When Nadia Popa wakes up at 7 a.m. every morning, it is to a growing and uneasy feeling of rage. Popa lives in an apartment in the southern part of Verona, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, where summer lilac is now in full bloom. It's a place where tourists come to spend romantic weekends. "I'm not here to be happy," she says.
Her children, Anastasia, 16, and Alexandra, 12, wake up at the same time, but more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away, in the dusty village of Nucreni in the northern part of the Republic of Moldova. Popa's daughters live in a country that is notorious for human trafficking and the illegal trade in human organs. The girls sleep in a spotless room with pink walls and teddy bears neatly lined up on the sofa. It looks more like an empty dollhouse than the bedroom of two young girls.
Anastasia and her sister, Alexandra, live alone in the house, which is on a gravel road. They feed the chickens before school and, in the afternoon, they plow the corn and potato fields. The girls run their own household, doing the laundry, cleaning the house and cutting firewood in the forest. The pink bedroom looks like that of a typical childhood -- but this is anything but that.
After Moldova became less prosperous, the parents in families like Anastasia and Alexandra's began to leave. Moldova was relatively prosperous during the Soviet era, when it was a significant exporter of fruit and vegetables to the rest of the country. But today, it is Europe's poorest country. Of a population of 4 million, one million Moldovans have already moved abroad to countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, which they still view as places of hope. Most Moldovans live there illegally, leaving children and the elderly behind in their villages in Moldova.
Far from Home
Anastasia, Popa's older daughter, is looking out across the zucchini field in front of her house. It hasn't rained in a long time, and the plants are withered and brown. "It won't be a good harvest this year," she says. It was a hot summer, much too hot, with temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. Anastasia is looking forward to winter. There isn't much to do in the winter. In the past, they would sit in the living room with their mother, crocheting and keeping warm with wool blankets. It was her favorite time of the year.
She sings quietly to herself. It helps her stay calm. Sometimes she also sings on the telephone as her mother listens on the other end.
"I often sob quietly," says Popa, 36. "I don't want her to hear me." She is sitting in a street café on Piazza Bra in the old section of Verona with the ancient amphitheater to her back. Gladiators once fought there, but now operas are performed in the evenings for tourists. Popa is wearing a white summer hat. Whenever she sees children, she has to resist the urge to talk to and touch them.
Instead of taking care of her own children, she cares for the parents of strangers who are too busy to care for them themselves. About 200,000 Moldovans live in Italy. The language resembles Romanian, which they speak at home. Like Popa, many Moldovan women work as badanti, or geriatric caregivers. It's a grueling and unappealing job for many Western Europeans. Badanti work long hours, are underpaid and are frequently confronted with sickness and death.
Popa lives with a couple, both of them cancer patients. She cooks and cleans for them, helps them change their urine bags and wash themselves, and takes them for walks. She comforts the old man when he weeps over an illness that is slowly destroying him. They often sit together in the living room and watch cartoons on TV. It makes Popa think about her children, and how much they would like to watch the same cartoons. When she eats a piece of cake, she thinks about her children and how much they would like the cake. She often feels guilty for not being at home.
She earns 700 ($915) a month. She has two hours off everyday, as well as Sundays, when she meets her Moldovan friends in a park. They've never been to the opera or to see a movie, and they only eat in restaurants when their employers take them out. Popa tries to spend as little as possible, saving her money so that she can finish building her house in Moldova.
She went on a trip to the Adriatic coast with a friend once. When she saw how beautiful the water was and how happy the families sitting on the beach looked, she could hardly breathe.
A Perilous Journey
When Popa left for Italy more than six years ago, her daughters were only nine and five.
Although Popa made enough money working in the fields at home to support her family, it wasn't enough for a real future. Moldovan agriculture never truly recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The old collective farms were closed, and productivity stagnated. There was almost no industry. The country was considered politically unstable, which deterred investors and drove many Moldovans abroad.
Popa was one of them. She borrowed 3,700 from relatives and a bank to pay the traffickers. Her journey, which would last more than two weeks, much of it on foot, began on Dec. 10, 2005. To cross the border between Ukraine and Hungary, the group walked across a pass in the Carpathian Mountains. It was bitterly cold, and they drank melted snow.
"A girl fell down a cliff in the mountains. The traffickers didn't want any trouble with the mother, so they threw her over the cliff," says Anastasia, the older daughter, "and then they just kept on going." She is sitting in her pink bedroom, her face wet with tears. She says that her mother told her what happened. The traffickers had apparently threatened to kill anyone who talked to others about the incident. Her mother would later deny any knowledge of the incident.
Once, when Popa didn't call her daughters for three weeks, says Anastasia, she was afraid that her mother was dead. She would hug her little sister at night and tell her again and again: "Don't worry, Mama will come back. I'm sure she will."
The girls didn't see their mother for four-and-a-half years. She was living illegally in Italy and was unable to travel owing to the risk of being arrested at the border. She wasn't there for the girls' birthdays or for Christmas. She wasn't there when the father left the family for good, when Alexandra refused to go to school, and not even when the little girl was in the hospital for several weeks because her bones had become brittle from poor nutrition.
"I almost went crazy at the time," says Popa. She couldn't sleep at night, and she called the girls up to seven times a day. "I felt completely helpless," she says.
- Part 1: Desperate Moldovans Head West without Families
- Part 2: Saving to Send Home
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