As the European Union has expanded eastward, hundreds of thousands of children have been turned into orphans in all but name. They grow up without their parents, who have no choice but to work in rich, Western European countries for a lack of job options back home.
Nicoleta’s mother is happy to see her daughter. “How did math go?” she asks. “Good,” her daughter responds. “I’m going to tutoring again later. The teacher said he’ll pick me up. Have you cooked anything?” “No, but I’m about to make something to eat,” the mother says.
Nicoleta stares at the screen of her smartphone. The two of them are separated by 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles). They’re talking over WhatsApp. Ileana Tanase, 37, is calling from London. The 14-year-old Nicoleta is sitting on her bed in her room in Scarisoara, a small town in the county of Bacau in eastern Romania.
They talk for a few minutes about school, food, work and the weather. In the next room, Nicoleta’s younger brother Andrei is playing a game on his phone. The 11-year-old doesn’t like to talk on the phone; he’s a bit introverted. “Kisses,” Nicoleta’s mother says. “Give Andrei and grandma and grandpa a kiss for me.” “I will. Bye, mommy;” the daughter days. Then they both hang up.
Daily conversations over WhatsApp, rarely longer than a few minutes. That’s been Ileana Tanase’s relationship with both of her children for the past three years. A relationship held together by shaky videos and hastily typed messages punctuated with emojis. It’s the digital simulation of a normal life.
Ileana Tanase has a middle school diploma, the lowest possible education one can receive in Romania. She was a housewife for a long time. After divorcing her husband in 2014, she couldn’t find any more work at home and went to London. At first, it was only for a few weeks at a time, but in 2016, she moved there for good. In the beginning, she worked as a maid in a hotel. Today, she’s a kitchen assistant in a café. She visits home once or twice a year. The children’s father broke off contact with them after the divorce. Nicoleta and Andrei have been living with their grandparents in Scarisoara ever since their mother left.
The Home-Alone Kids
The media refers to such children as “euro orphans.” In Romania, they’re known as “copii singuri acasa,” or “latchkey kids.” These are children from central and southeastern European nations who have spent years living with grandparents or other relatives, because their own parents went to western EU countries to find work after finding none at home.
It’s one of the darker sides of the success story that has been the EU’s eastward enlargement. According to various official statistics, between 95,000 and 160,000 children in Romania have at least one parent abroad. The authorities assume the number is actually considerably higher; they put it around 350,000 “latchkey kids.” And that’s just in Romania. There are “euro orphans” everywhere from the Baltics to the Balkans.
The numbers aren’t reliable because many parents don’t inform the authorities when they leave their children with relatives. This is either due to ignorance, negligence or fear that they could lose custody of their children, according to Daniela Titaru, director of the social and child authority DGASPC in Romania’s Bacau county. Titaru’s area of jurisdiction has the highest number of “latchkey kids” in the entire country. “There are many empty villages in our county, plus a lot of fallow land. There is a shortage of labor everywhere,” she says.
Scarisoara is also half abandoned. The village isn’t far from the Siret River, tucked between gently rolling hills. It belongs to the municipality of Corbasca and has 719 official residents. But it’s almost only children, teenagers and elderly people who walk along its quiet streets. Most adults of working age, as the locals say, are “plecati in strainatate” — they’ve “gone abroad.”
‘We Are Poor, but We Live in Dignity’
Nicoleta remembers when her mother, too, disappeared for good. It was a warm summer day in August three years ago. They took a bus from Scarisoara to Bacau. Ileana told the children she had to leave because she couldn’t find a job in Romania that would keep them out of poverty and provide them with a good education. She said she would be leaving for a long time — many years — but that one day, perhaps the children could come to England.
They had some time before the mother’s departure, so the four of them went to a park. The kids got ice cream. As the bus drove away, Ileana Tanase waved goodbye with tears in her eyes. Nicoleta says her heart was heavy that day, but she found some comfort in the knowledge that her mother was leaving in order to provide for her and her brother. And that one day, they might be able to follow her.
The Tanase family lives in modest circumstances on a small farm. The grandparents, Matei and Margareta Tanase, 69 and 64 respectively, are self-sufficient. They keep pigs and chickens, grow corn and have a vegetable garden.
Matei Tanase, a former truck driver, mostly sells self-caught fish in the surrounding towns, which he travels to via horse-drawn carriage. Margareta Tanase was an unskilled worker in a carpet factory. Now she looks after the house and the yard, cooks and cares for her 98-year-old mother. Her daughter Ileana sends money from England every month. “We are poor people, but we live with dignity,” Margareta Tanase says proudly. “And the children never want for anything.”
Margareta Tanase acts like she doesn’t have much time to think about her feelings. When asked how the children feel about living without their mother, she says, “It’s difficult for my daughter as well as my grandchildren, but they have gotten used to the situation. I’m here for them, after all.”
Nicoleta is a serious girl. She has made her room, about 10 square meters (108 square feet), into her own small and orderly realm. There are plenty of soft, cuddly toys, porcelain horses and colorful paper flowers in vases.
She says she has a lot of friends, but that she mostly sees them at school in the neighboring town. She has to study, so she has a lot of time to herself. In her spare time, she likes to draw fantasy scenes with lots of geometric patterns and brightly colored, surreal landscapes with horses, unicorns and little girls. “I get by,” she says.
Later, when her small cat Mischa comes into the room, she cheers up and shows off what she has taught the animal. On command, the cat jumps up onto the bed, lays down and offers her paw. “She knows when I get back from school every day and is there waiting for me,” Nicoleta says, nestling her face against the cat’s head.
Her biggest dream is to leave the village and move to London with her mother, graduate from high school and become a pharmacist. This would be possible, in theory: Her mother has carved out a stable existence for herself. She lives on the northeastern edge of town in a small, terraced home with three rooms. There would be plenty of room for the children there.
Ileana Tanase works Monday to Thursday for 13 hours a day. On Friday and Saturday, she works at the cafe for eight to 10 hours. She takes home 1,700 euros ($1,908) a month, she explains over WhatsApp. It’s enough to cover her cost of living and send money home. It would also be enough to bring the children to her. But in order to do that, her ex-husband would have to sign a legal document allowing the children to leave Romania. It’s unclear when, or even if, he’ll do this. “In my thoughts, I’m with the children,” says Tanase. She sounds despondent.
‘Migration Is Our Biggest Problem’
Before the fall of the dictatorship, there was an agricultural cooperative in the municipality of Corbasca with its seven villages. Anyone who didn’t work there could commute to Bacau some 50 kilometers away. At the time, Bacau was a hub for the chemical, textile and paper industries in eastern Romania. Yet amid the political and economic turmoil of the country’s first decade post-Communism, hardly any of those industries survived. Cooperatives everywhere were dismantled. Only a few of the former state-owned enterprises survived — with only a fraction of the personnel.
There are only a handful of jobs left in Corbasca, with its 4,900 residents. Those jobs are with the local town council, for instance, or in the bakery, the canteen, the few bars or in small shops. The municipality’s mayor, Nicusor Andone Puscasu, doesn’t mince his words. “Migration is our biggest problem,” he says. “It would be better if the people stayed, if only for the children. But unfortunately, the economic situation makes this unfeasible.”
There probably isn’t anyone in the community who knows the individual cases and their circumstances better than Constantin Tabacaru. The 55-year-old worked as a teacher in Corbasca for a long time. Eight years ago, he began participating in a UNICEF project for children from needy families. He himself grew up in very poor, difficult circumstances, Tabacaru says. It’s what drives him today.
In 2015, he gave up teaching and started working as a social worker in his community. Now, he regularly goes to the homes of children whose parents work abroad. He makes sure their rights are being respected and advises grandparents or relatives on educational, social or guardianship issues. Often, what he encounters during his house calls makes him feel helpless. “An entire generation in this country has grown up without parents. Now a part of the next generation is also experiencing this,” Tabacaru says. “I often ask myself, ‘What will become of these children and what kind of future will they have?'”
There’s nowhere Tabacaru goes more often than Bacioi. It’s the largest village in the municipality of Corbasca. Officially, it has around 2,000 residents. Tabacaru estimates that 80 percent of all adults of working age have left.
From a distance, Baicoi appears to be chic and middle class, situated in a leafy suburb of a big city. It’s full of modern, spacious, mostly three-story residential buildings. Many are painted ochre and boast balconies and raspberry red roofs. But looks can be deceiving — the buildings are all unoccupied. They belong to economic emigres who put all of their savings into the fancy homes. It’s the traditional way people save for the future and retirement here.
Most Children Suffer From Emotional Anxiety
Around 220 children attend Bacioi’s school, which goes until the 8th grade. Only 20 of the kids’ parents still live in town. All of the others have grown up at their grandparents’ or relatives’, according to the school’s director, Adriana Duca. “They are well-dressed and have the latest phones. They behave very respectfully. There aren’t any disciplinary problems,” she says. “But emotionally, nearly all of them have issues. Many of the younger children are constantly hugging us and seeking physical contact.”
Adriana Duca, 46, has worked at the school for 25 years. There are still moments, however, that throw her. “Like when some of the kids call me ‘Mama,'” she says.
The 11-year-old Petronela is a good student. She wants to be a police officer when she grows up and hunt down thieves, she says. Does she miss her parents? She smiles bashfully and seems to think about how to best answer. Eventually, she says, “I mean, it’s OK.” After a while, she amends this: “It’s more my parents who miss me.” Her brother and the other children around her, her cousins, burst out laughing.
Petronela doesn’t live far from the school. She stays with her grandparents, Vasile and Maria Calin, who are 61 and 57-years-old respectively. They have raised nine children, eight of whom live outside Romania. Now, five of their grandchildren are living with them, together with their youngest daughter, Betania, whom they had at a late age and who is only 12. “We don’t feel like grandparents,” says Vasile Calin. “We’re still parents. And we’re happy to be parents, even for our grandchildren.”
Vasile Calin and his wife live in a small house with two rooms, one for the six children, the other for themselves. At the back of the property, one of their sons, who works in Spain, built a large, two-story house. The bottom floor, which has three large rooms and marble floors, is largely finished. But the Calins and their grandchildren prefer to live in the smaller, older house. They find it more comfortable.
Wanting Better Lives for Their Grandchildren
In the courtyard, Maria Calin cooks on a stone oven. Every now and then, a neighbor will come by and chat. Vasile Calin chops firewood. Some of the children help him or fetch water from the well, romping and laughing as they go. Sometimes they stop and play video games on their phones or post something to Facebook, until their grandfather calls out to them: “Your daily screen time is up!”
Vasile Calin and his wife both have a middle school diploma and spent their lives working in various agricultural cooperatives. They don’t get a pension. After the fall of the dictatorship, Vasile Calin says, one of their employers lost their work papers; for a time, they simply continued working without papers. Nowadays, they survive off money provided by relatives for the grandchildren plus the remittances their children send home from abroad.
In the turmoil of the post-Communist years, the Calins moved around a lot in search of work. Their children barely went to school — which Vasile Calin now regrets. Three of his children don’t have a permanent job abroad, so he has insisted that his five grandchildren stay in the village and go to school. He takes great care that they don’t miss classes, do their homework and don’t spend too much time on their phones. “I would like my grandchildren and my youngest daughter to learn decent professions,” he says. “Otherwise, they’ll end up like some of my other children, somewhere abroad, with some degrading life.”
Selling Newspapers in Berlin
On a cool, early summer day in Berlin’s Reinickendorf district, Petrica Gologan, 38, stands in front of a supermarket and tries to sell copies of the street newspaper Motz. He greets everyone who walks past him in broken German. Many of the people know him and greet him back, surrendering a few cents on their way out. Some are even more generous and hand him 1-euro or 2-euro coins. No one wants the paper he’s selling. Petrica Gologan bows and says, “Thank you! Thank you! Nice day, you have!”
Gologan begs here every Wednesday. On other days of the week, he goes to different supermarkets. Sometimes he even leaves the city altogether and tries his luck somewhere in the surrounding state of Brandenburg. It’s important, he says, not to frequent the same place too often.
Petrica Gologan, 38, and his wife, Maria, who is 10 years his junior, have lived in Berlin for six years. They are the parents of Petronela and Leonard. Maria, too, tries to sell her own stack of street papers, most of the time in close proximity to her husband. Their children know their parents earn money “with newspapers.”
Business isn’t actually all that bad. They each earn around 30 euros a day, which comes out to around 1,500 euros a month, sometimes more. In Romania, even with full-time jobs, they wouldn’t earn half that much — assuming they found jobs at all.
Petrica and Maria live in Berlin’s eastern district of Lichtenberg, where they live as subtenants of subtenants. They pay 300 euros a month for two beds in a room with four people and a communal kitchen. They decline to reveal more about their living situation, since they don’t have a rental contract and, therefore, can’t register with the authorities. To that end, they can’t feasibly establish a normal, stable existence.
Shortly before noon one day, as Petrica stood in front of his supermarket, he could tell that he was going to earn more than 30 euros. The people were in a generous mood, but he couldn’t muster the strength to be happy about it. “I’m ashamed. And I’m sick and tired of all this begging,” he says with a sigh. “If only I could at least get a low-paid job!”
After nine hours, he takes a train back to meet his wife, who is waiting for him at an snack stand a half hour away. Together, they’ve managed to collect 70 euros. It was a good day. They order tea and call their children. The have a cheap mobile phone, not a smartphone. Video calls are impossible. The children seem to be doing well. They listen to Petronela’s cheerful voice. Once they hang up, Petrica and Maria Gologan stare at each other silently. Then they begin to cry.