Nearly every weekday morning when I drop my children off at school in our small, southern Romanian town, a dozen or so adults mill about the corner across the street. Each one carries a backpack and one duffel bag. They are waiting for the large green tour bus that never fails to appear. A typed page in the front window indicates the bus is either destined non-stop to Italy or Spain.
These individuals are not boarding this bus for a vacation on the Riviera. With hasty goodbyes, working-age adults leave behind spouses and young children to take advantage of work opportunities afforded to them as a result of Romania’s inclusion in the European Union.
Every day I see the bus and I am reminded of the fractured families that have become an implicit part of Romanian society. Thousands upon thousands of children, particularly in rural Romania, currently have one or both parents working abroad. Some parents work seasonally and return home for part of the year. Others are gone for years. Some parents leave their children in the care of a relative or grandparents. Others leave their children in the care of the oldest sibling, technically abandoning them out of desperation for work.
When Romania joined the EU in 2007, migrants poured of the country seeking employment. As a result, 350,000 children, a staggering number, were left without one or both parents. The trend has continued in the last eight years. With high unemployment and a current minimum wage that guarantees only the equivalent of $200 a month, the temptation to find work elsewhere is nearly irresistible. Every Romanian I have met in the last five months has either worked abroad, their spouse has worked abroad or an immediate family member (sibling, parent or child) is currently living and working abroad.
While visiting an expectant mother in her home recently, I asked if many of the people in her neighborhood worked outside Romania. “Everyone!” she laughed. Indeed, for ten of her own childhood years her widowed mother worked in Spain to provide for her family. During that time she lived with her grandmother and saw her mother infrequently. “Yes,” she says. “It was hard.”
More recently I met Titina. Titina lives with her daughter in an old red brick house that belonged to her mother. She had left her family to work in Italy where she took care of the elderly in their homes. When I went to meet her, she greeted me outside on a grassy hill with a view that included a river valley, village rooftops on the horizon and a herd of cows walking home on the opposite hill.
“It’s beautiful here,” I said as we shook hands. “Was it more beautiful in southern Italy?” She paused. “Nothing is more beautiful than one’s home country.”
Titina wants to stay in her village with her daughter, but she has no employment options. Until now.
Florina is from central Romania and came to work among the rural poor over ten years ago. She saw the plight of families and particularly the social fracturing that resulted from parents leaving their children behind as they searched for work. Poor women in particular need an alternative to serving as low-wage migrant labor in Western Europe. They want to stay with their children, but poverty and unemployment drive them away.
With the support of a small team, Florina started an economic community development project called Spero Designs that teaches women hand-working skills such as knitting and crocheting. Once they have been trained, the women can work from home and receive a living wage for the products they create. Items are sold in person at the workshop and online through an Etsy shop where they reach a worldwide market. I was introduced to the project when they asked me to assist where English language skills would be invaluable. Projects like these – of which there are not many – are focused on keeping families together.
Spero Designs began in earnest this year and now works with five women that live on the poverty line. They will continue to add more women as revenue from sales increase. It’s a drop on the bucket, as they say, but for the children, that drop was all that was needed to enable their mother to be present to raise them and give them hope for their future. It’s a small step toward the larger goal of healing some of Romania’s fractured families.