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.

Saving to Send Home

Even after all these years, Popa still feels like a stranger in Italy. She spends her evenings in the small apartment of her sick employers. She doesn't want to go out. "I'm happy that I have this job," she says. "They're good people."

Popa walks through the narrow streets of the city, stopping in front of shop windows here and there. She is wearing a polyester dress with a floral pattern, with mint-green pearl earrings she bought in a drug store. She likes the Louis Vuitton handbags and the Gucci dresses, but quickly leaves shops when approached.

Once a month, Popa sends a 40-kilogram (88-pound) package to her daughters in the dusty village. An armada of minibuses travels regularly back and forth between Italy and Moldova. In addition to packages, the drivers also deliver money. The money the migrant workers send home, about €1.1 billion a year, makes up roughly a quarter of the country's gross domestic product and exceeds its entire national budget. And although the money protects many families from poverty, it isn't enough to save the ailing economy.

Popa's packages contain jeans and shoes, Hello Kitty T-shirts, pajamas, spaghetti, chocolate, oranges, bananas and even detergent and toilet paper. There is a bar of strawberry-scented Italian soap in the girls' bathroom, there is loaf of panettone sweet bread in the kitchen cabinet, and even the zucchini seeds for next spring are from Italy. "I don't want these things," Alexandra says to her mother on the phone in the evening, "I want you to come instead."

Families Torn Apart

The Child Rights Information Center in Chiinau, the Moldovan capital, estimates that there are about 250,000 children in Moldova whose fathers or mothers are living abroad. Some live with their grandparents or neighbors, while others are left to fend for themselves.

Ion, 15, has been living on his own for the past four years. His parents live in Moscow, where they work for a bus company. They send him about €200 a month, and they've bought their son a cow, a horse and a rabbit to keep him occupied. They even gave him a motor scooter recently, but they only come to visit once a year.

"I'm over it," says Ion, looking away, a slim, blond boy who is tired of crying. When asked whether his parents have changed, Ion says that they have become "much more attractive." His mother now wears high-heeled shoes and lipstick, he says. They Skype every evening, he adds. He insists that everything is fine for him and his sister, and that they don't get in each other's way. She is "responsible for things in the house," while he does all the outside chores, including feeding the animals, cleaning the stable and fetching water from the well.

Ion says that he too wants to have children when he grows up. But he has no concept of family life, saying that he hardly remembers what it was like when his mother and father were still living in the house with them. In his view, his current life is "completely normal."

The entire country has experienced profound changes in recent years. Traditionally, family is sacred to Moldovans, but there is now a growing gap between reality and the ideal, as the divorce rate rises and the birth rate declines. Many married couples live apart for much of the year, and children must fend for themselves.

Leaving for Good

The exodus threatens to destroy Moldovan society. Even university graduates are leaving the country for better-paying jobs abroad, working in the fields or cleaning houses. Many, like Tatjana Radu, 40, are now deciding to leave the country for good. Radu had intended to build a house in the southern Moldovan village of Cîrpeti with the money she earned as a cleaning woman and geriatric caregiver in Italy. There are still donkey carts on the streets in Cîrpeti, and toilets there are nothing but holes in the ground. But now Radu wants to bring her daughters to Italy instead.

Her three daughters were eight, 10 and 12 when she left them behind. They lived alone in two bare rooms in a building next to the goose pen on a former collective farm, around the corner from the pigpen. Olga, the eldest, braids her sisters' hair every morning, and she makes sheep's cheese once a week. Radu had been sending money to the girls' godfather, but he pocketed most of it.

Now Radu has returned to Moldova to pick up her daughters. They are standing in front of the heavy metal gate of the old collective farm, refusing to set foot inside one more time. "I never want to come back to this place," says Olga. Radu and her three daughters are about to board a bus for Modena, a city in northern Italy not far from Verona.

Nadja Popa makes far too little to be able to support her daughters in Verona. Her employers applied for a residence permit for her three years ago. The permit was granted thanks to an amnesty Italy occasionally issues for illegal immigrants. Since then, she has traveled to Moldova for two weeks of vacation every year. This year, she attended her older daughter's school graduation ceremony. Popa isn't pleased with Anastasia's grades, convinced that her daughter could have done better in school. They drive to Chiinau together and buy a white dress. They can't stop touching each other. Anastasia says that she can hardly believe that her mother is with her. "I miss her, even though she's here," she says.

Popa is worried about Alexandra, who says very little, sits around and stares into space a lot. If she had to make the decision all over again, Popa says, she wouldn't leave her daughters alone. She is convinced that she has harmed them.

At 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, Popa boards a nonstop flight on an Air Moldova flight from Chiinau to Verona.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan