Romania’s resilient generation: The kids ‘left behind’ who get ahead

Lina Vdovii Bucharest, Raducaneni and Madrid

Growing up alone while their parents worked abroad has been tough for many children but helped some of them to thrive.

Ioana (left) and Madalina (right), two of Romania's 'children left behind'

Photo: Lina Vdovii

When Madalina Oprisan was 13, her mother left their home in Romania to work as a cleaner in Israel. They have seen each other just four times in the 13 years since then.

Madalina and her younger sister Ioana moved in with different aunts in their home town of Bacau. Madalina was timid, a mediocre pupil seen as having no chance of getting to university. She had a troubled family history - a father who rejected her and a stepfather who was violent.

Madalina and her sister had all the traits to be central characters in one of the many heartbreaking media reports on “abandoned children”, those left behind by parents who quit Romania and other eastern European countries to work abroad in richer nations.

Often, these stories in Romanian and foreign media have highlighted extreme cases, in which children turn to violence or even suicide.

But after her mother left, Madalina blossomed. She took part in school competitions, had her own page in the local newspaper, graduated from the best high school in town and studied journalism in Bucharest on a scholarship.

“It was hard for me to be raised like this, on Skype. At the same time, it made me stronger,” Madalina, now a thoughtful 26-year-old, says in a restaurant in central Bucharest.

Madalina and her sister are among many “children left behind”, as they are sometimes known, who have grown up to thrive as young adults but are often missing from media coverage and public debate about migration and its effect on families.

To gain an understanding of why they have succeeded and at what cost, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network has spoken to more than 30 young professionals and students who grew up with parents living abroad.

Among them were an automotive engineer, a systems engineer, a sales manager, an artist, a musician, an assistant psychologist and students taking degrees in subjects ranging from economics to architecture. Their parents work, or had worked, in countries including Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain.

The interviewees ranged in age between 18 and 28 and come from Romania or its smaller eastern neighbour Moldova, which has close ethnic and linguistic ties to Romania and also has a high proportion of its population working outside the country.

The stories of just a few illustrate how they benefitted from their parents’ decision to go abroad but also show that both generations paid an emotional price for their success.

Madalina Oprisan, a communications manager for a non-profit who also runs a bicycle workshop with her boyfriend

Photo: Lina Vdovii

“Our parents tried to change our social status,” Madalina says. “They went to foreign countries to work as unqualified workers with the sole purpose of building a better future for us, the next generation, in our home country.”

She remembers with a grim expression when her mother was selling newspapers, cans of food from Turkey and cigarettes from Moldova.

“If she’d kept working for 300 euros a month, she wouldn’t have sent me to college, paid for my private classes or my trips,” she admits. “I saw Paris before Bucharest.”

After graduation, Madalina worked as a reporter for the leading Romanian commercial television station, ProTV, and is now a communications manager for a non-profit that helps other charities make use of technology.

Left behind by migration

Over the past two and a half decades, millions of Romanians have left the country in search of work abroad. One wave of migration followed the fall of communism in 1989. A second began over a decade ago after the European Union lifted visa restrictions on entry to its Schengen area, which is free from internal border controls and now comprises 26 countries.

Romanians and others found jobs in western Europe as builders, agricultural labourers, cleaners, care workers and in other fields. Many left their children in the care of their spouse or a relative, or let them live by themselves if they were considered old enough.

"When you judge this generation of children, while their parents work hard in the West, think twice before you call them ‘abandoned’ and blame the parents"

- blogger Andrei Dobra.

According to the Romanian Department of Child Protection, more than 84,000 children have one or both of their parents working abroad. But non-governmental organisations estimate that the true number is around 350,000 - the highest of any European country.

In Moldova, around 177,000 children are estimated to be in the same situation.

Olga Gavrilita, a Moldovan student, was seven years old when her parents left to go abroad.

“It was the most intensive life course,” says Olga, who is studying for a master’s degree in economics at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. “Their leaving made me realize what I wanted to do next and where.”

A sample of some domestic and international media coverage of “children left behind” by parents who work abroad

The fate of the “children left behind” became a major topic in the Romanian media seven years ago.

ProTV broadcast a campaign entitled Do you know how your child is? about children whose parents never came back, often starting new families in western Europe. A documentary a few years later called Home alone - A Romanian tragedy detailed the stories of three children who ended their lives because of their parents’ absence.

Those stories triggered shock waves across the country, and attracted yet more media attention.

Articles with alarming headlines such as ‘Children on the edge of the abyss’, ‘The terrible drama of the ‘euro-orphans’ of Romania’ or ‘The country of the abandoned children?’ led to readers’ comments such as “What kind of parents are these? They deserve to be sent to labour camps”.

However, analysts say such coverage has created a distorted picture.

“There are a few isolated tragic cases and the media is using them to attract an audience,” says Victoria Nedelciuc, a migration expert at the Open Society Foundation in Bucharest. “But there are many advantages to migration.”

Nedelciuc says that the money parents send back enables children to buy computers and learn how to use technology, to go to better colleges and universities and to travel abroad.

Many of those branded “abandoned children” feel misunderstood. Andrei Dobra, a veteran Romanian blogger, told BIRN his parents moved to Spain when he was 13 years old, leaving him with an aunt. They were only meant to be gone for a year but ended up staying abroad. Now he only sees them on vacations.

“I never felt abandoned and I never felt any hatred towards them. I know they left and made these sacrifices for me, for us,” says Andrei, 28, an only child.

The interview prompted Andrei to write a blog post entitled ‘Abandoned’ child offers explanations.

“I was told many times that if my parents had loved me, they wouldn’t have been able to bear the separation,” Andrei wrote. 

“I got very angry when I first heard that,” he added. “When you judge this generation of children, while their parents work hard in the West, think twice before you call them ‘abandoned’ and blame the parents. You might not know the whole story, all the details.”

Adrian Lupu, a sociology professor at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iasi, eastern Romania, took part in the first study of children with parents working abroad in 2006. He and other experts use the term resilient to describe those who overcame the hard times and managed to succeed in academic and professional terms.

Emotional cost

But the success of these children has not been without consequences.

Studies published by organisations such as Save the Children and the Soros Foundation Romania have revealed differences between children with parents at home and those left behind.

Fifteen percent of children with parents abroad had problems with the police, compared to only 10 percent of those living with their parents. More poignant, though, was the emotional impact. Thirty-six percent of children with both parents abroad said they felt lonely, while 22 percent believed no one loved them.

Another risk is the deterioration of the relationship between parent and child.

The Oprisan sisters have adapted differently to their mother’s absence. Ioana has maintained a relatively close relationship with her while Madalina has largely broken off communication.

“She left before I had my first period. I was at my aunt’s, harvesting potatoes, and I got very scared as nobody warned me,” Madalina says. “It’s too much time spent apart.”

These days, a source of friction between them is Madalina’s boyfriend Lucian, whose only job is running a bicycle workshop he co-founded with her. For her mother, finding a man to bring home money is more important.

“The stress of being poor was so heavy before she left, I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing my mother talking to herself in the kitchen,” Madalina says.

After her mother left, Madalina built a strong support network, including her aunt, friends, cousins and, later, Lucian.

Madalina’s aunt worked closely with her on homework and she soon became one of the brightest students in her school.

Ioana, by contrast, was too little to cope well with her mother’s departure. She needed more affection. “Aunties are never like mothers,” she says.

She would cry for hours on end. “I simply missed talking to somebody,” she explains. Sometimes, she knocked on the door of a neighbour, a woman in her 50s, just to have a conversation.

In school, little Ioana imagined her female teachers being her mother.

Dark haired and with a rare openness, Ioana remembers their mother’s first visit home, after four years. “Her hair turned from black to white as snow,” she recalls. “It was so white, that even though her features were the same, I couldn’t think of her as my mother.”

Madalina’s sister Ioana in her apartment in central Bucharest

Photo: Lina Vdovii

Her voice is tinged with sorrow as she reminisces about living in a tiny, concrete apartment alone after Madalina left for university in Bucharest.

Now 20, Ioana has recently moved into a spacious, three-bedroom apartment in central Bucharest, bought by her mother. She proudly shows a visitor round the flat, with its two bathrooms, new furniture, freshly painted white walls and colourful storage boxes on a white shelving unit.

Ioana studies dentistry at Carol Davila University in Bucharest on a scholarship, which she won with the help of private classes she took in Bucharest in the last year of high school, travelling for seven hours every fortnight to the capital city. Her mother paid for everything.

“If my mother had stayed in the country, I wouldn’t have anything,” she admits.

Sociologist Lupu says many students are paying their tuition fees with money from abroad. He believes a survey of all the universities in Romania would show the figure is surprisingly high.

Irina Visin, one of Lupu’s students, says that 20 of her 34 fellow students in the first year of a master’s degree in the protection of children’s rights have, or had, parents working abroad.

Improving resilience

Advocacy groups have been fighting for years to get greater legal protection for children with migrant parents. After going through eight drafts, the Romanian Parliament finally adopted a new Law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of the Child in September 2013.

The law includes a fine of 500 to 1,000 Romanian lei (about 115 to 230 euros) for parents who do not inform authorities that they are leaving to work abroad and secure a judge’s approval of a guardian for their children at least 40 days before they depart.

Victoria Nedelciuc of the Open Society Foundation laments that the law does not foresee any role for schools to tell the authorities if they notice a child’s parents have left.

“The problem is that the school is totally missing,” she says. “The teacher is the first to know when a pupil’s parent is gone.”

In order to help children develop resilience away from their families, Save the Children has introduced a programme called ‘We grow up together’ in 16 schools around the country.

Over three years, specialists have helped more than 2,000 children by assisting with homework, providing access to computers to establish better communication with parents and offering individual psychological counselling. 

In 2013, seventy percent of the children in the programme improved their academic results and 46 percent won awards in school competitions, according to Save the Children.

The village where teachers are mothers

Some schools have undertaken their own efforts to help children with parents abroad.

In the village of Raducaneni in northern Romania, unpaved, muddy roads trampled day after day by horses and carts open up to newly built homes.

According to the local authorities, up to 150 parents from the village’s 500 families have gone abroad to work.

The main street in the village of Raducaneni, eastern Romania

Photo: Lina Vdovii

The director of the local school, Coca Codreanu, lists the extracurricular activities organised for the children left behind such as drama, music and art groups.

“We, as a school, are doing our best to be parents, doctors, and friends for them,” she says.

In an old classroom with blue and white walls and a stove in the corner, Alexandra Ladan, a 10-year-old girl with short dark hair, is among six children in her class with parents abroad.

Alexandra’s mother left for Italy when she was seven months old.

The two are friends on Facebook. This is how Alexandra knows her mother is doing well and has another family. “She posts short videos with the new baby,” Alexandra says.

On some Sundays, they talk via Facebook chat. But her mother never calls. Not even on birthdays. At this point, Alexandra, who lives with her father and grandparents, starts crying.

A couple of months later, Alexandra's mother came back to Romania for a visit and saw her daughter for the first time in 10 years. Alexandra says via Skype that it felt "strange" to be with her mother again.

Despite the trauma she has endured, Alexandra is one of the best pupils in the class, according to her teacher, Ecaterina Pascaloaie.

Ten-year-old Alexandra Ladan, whose mother lives in Italy

Photo: Lina Vdovii

Whether children such as Alexandra fare well academically and emotionally depends on factors including their own personality and the support they receive from key adults, experts say.

“I’ve met children who were left home alone and succeeded either because they had a very strong wish to do so and loved school, or because they were fortunate enough to have people who helped them such as a class teacher, a classmate or a grandmother,” says Luminita Costache, educational programmes coordinator at the Romanian branch of the UN children’s agency UNICEF.

Starting from zero

Many parents who work abroad hope their sacrifice will prevent their children having to follow in their footsteps - that the money they send back will put their sons and daughters on a path to a secure future back home. But sometimes it does not work out that way.

Until summer last year, Georgiana Panca, a 25-year-old with bright red hair, was a reporter in Bucharest for one of Romania’s biggest newspapers.

Then her sister was diagnosed with skin cancer. Her parents, who live in Spain, could no longer afford to send money back to Georgiana. They asked her to join them and get a job. Georgiana felt she owed them.

“They helped me a lot, gave me strength to move on and become who I am,” she says.

Georgiana Panca in a park in Madrid

Photo: Lina Vdovii

In Madrid, Georgiana and her parents sit at a table with traditional Romanian food - soup, polenta and cheese. They watch the running of the bulls in Pamplona on TV. Georgiana’s father, an imposing man with greying hair, weeps as he talks about how hard it is to find a job in Spain nowadays.

Georgiana’s mother Maria recalls why she moved to Spain and left her daughter behind.

“When I left, she was 15,” she says. “It was a hard decision, but I wanted her to go to college and I also wanted us to build a beautiful house at home.”

Georgiana lived by herself for nine years.

“In high-school, I was actually cool. My friends knew I was alone and we had parties,” she says.

But she is anything but happy with her new life in Madrid. After working for a while as a babysitter and cleaner for a Spanish family and as a waitress in a bar, she now has a job as a night receptionist at a hostel.

Her experience in Spain has given Georgiana an insight into the struggles her parents went through to make life better for her.

“To start everything from zero is hard,” she says.


Lina Vdovîi is a reporter for the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Fellow Bio

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Lina Vdovîi

Lina Vdovii is a member of the Casa Jurnalistului collective of independent journalists in Bucharest who also worked as a contributing editor to Romanian national television’s website.


Topic 2014: Generations

This year’s annual topic is Generations. Think of a powerful story that you have always wanted to report, and link it to this theme while crafting your proposal. Remember, it is better to have a strong central idea that is loosely linked to the annual theme than to have a weak idea that is strongly linked to the theme.