If you have kids in school, imagine what it would be like if the fathers of many of their classmates left town to seek work in another country. How would those kids feel?
Now imagine that some of their mothers left, too. Finally, suppose your own kids were among those going home every night to be raised by a grandmother, seeing you only online or during your occasional visits home.
If you have trouble imagining this, then come to Moldova. You’ll see it everywhere.
One woman we know is raising two energetic kids while her husband works abroad. In another family, the daughter and her husband are working abroad part-time, with two school-age girls at home. When Champa and I were sitting outside at a cafe, a guy sat beside us, said he was on a break from his job in England and asked whether we could help him get a green card to America. Lots of people want green cards. A work colleague told me he applied but didn’t get one. Someone I know through Peace Corps told me he wants one, too. One reason many adults are keen to learn English is to help them find employment abroad.
Moldova’s nominal gross domestic product per capita, as reported most recently by the International Monetary Fund, is just over US$1800. Good-paying jobs are scarce. People who want to start their own businesses face red tape and little capital. Banks are mistrusted. So are politicians. Many people are tired and discouraged.
So they go to Russia to drive trucks. They serve meals in Italy, build homes in Ukraine and raise other people’s children while their own grow up with grandparents or neighbors. According to the International Organization for Migration, one-quarter of Moldova’s working-age population now works abroad, a situation described here, here and here.
Many of these workers send money home and return for visits laden with televisions, laptops and toys. Their earnings pay for some of the loveliest homes in Moldovan villages.
None of this is unique to Moldova. Our own country is filled with immigrants looking for a better life, with children sometimes left behind. We’ve all been watching Syrian families flee from horrific conditions. Back when we were in North Carolina, Champa and I assisted a Rwandan family. In Nepal last fall, we met several families whose sons worked in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, all four of my own grandparents emigrated to America.
I’ve illustrated this blog post with some of the signs you see across Moldova. They’re from employment companies promoting legal jobs abroad. Every piece of paper torn from the bottom of a poster represents another person who may be leaving Moldova.
What does it mean for a country to lose, at least temporarily, so many of its citizens in the prime of their lives? What does it mean for this generation of children?
As a father and grandfather, I feel great empathy for Moldovans who make this choice. They are in a very difficult situation. They need to feed their families and they want to provide them with a few simple pleasures, like a nicer home or a modern bathroom. They love their children every bit as much as we do, and they do everything they can to help them. Those who return, moreover, may bring not only money and goods but also also a new perspective on what is possible for themselves and their country, something we saw in Nepal.
Spending time with these families has changed my own perspective on our immigration debate back home. Moldova doesn’t figure much in that debate, yet I’ve found it instructive nonetheless to watch here as a father calls home to ask his kids about their day. I’ve seen the kids run to the computer when they hear the Skype ringtone. I’ve heard the mother tell me later how much she misses him.
Her voice is but a whisper beside the angry rhetoric we hear on the campaign trail, yet it’s hers that speaks to my heart. Imagine that.
Addendum, September 23: Lauren Jaeger, a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova who has been active in anti-trafficking efforts, responded on Facebook to this post with an important reminder about the potential dangers represented by the posters you see above. With her permission, I am reprinting her comment here as well. (Thanks Lauren!) Here it is: “I loved your piece, David, but just cringe when I see these posters. Because of the desire/necessity to find work abroad, support loved ones, and keep up with the ever-increasing living costs and stagnant incomes in Moldova, many people are tricked into unfair labor practices. While many great organizations are working to educate people on ways to verify work offers abroad, I still see many posters like this; no company name, no website, no real information, and many promising to cover document costs, transportation, or even living expenses. It puts Moldovans, and many others across the globe, in a very sensitive, dangerous situation that is the perfect breeding ground for fraud.”