Gethin Chamberlain, in Iasi, Romania, for The Sunday Telegraph, 25 March 2007
THE HEADMASTER glanced around the classroom. “Hands up, those of you with parents who are working abroad,” he told them. A forest of arms shot up; out of a class of 21 pupils at the school in Liteni in northern Romania, only three children kept their hands on the desks.
“Who do you stay with?” the headmaster, Gheorghe Moga, asked. “My grandmother,” replied one of the 10-year-olds with his hand in the air. “My cousin,” said an 11-year-old. Mr Moga went around the room. Grandmother, cousin, grandmother, cousin …
Romania, a nation mired in poverty, is counting the true cost of living on the edge of western Europe. Hundreds of thousands of parents are leaving their children with friends or relatives in order to go abroad in search of work.
The adults, who often send back money for toys, mobiles and school books, believe that they are making a sacrifice for the good of their children, but the Romanian authorities say their new wealth often comes at a terrible price. Many of the children left behind have become miserable and withdrawn and some, unable to cope without their parents, have killed themselves.
Last March, Razvan Suculiuc walked home from school in the village of Ciortesti, fed the chickens, went to the woodshed and hanged himself. He was 10-years-old.
His mother, Liliane, had abandoned the bar job that paid her pounds 100 a month and had gone to Italy to work as a maid, leaving Razvan in the care of his unemployed father. She said the boy had wanted a computer, but the family could not afford it unless she went away to find work.
“I don’t regret that I left,” she said. “I left with good intentions. I am very sorry for what happened, but we couldn’t live on a Romanian salary.”
She looked at the last photograph taken of Razvan, two weeks before he took his own life. He was with his friends, smiling out of the frame. Maybe he missed her more than she realised. She said: “I don’t think he meant to kill himself, but maybe he wanted to force me to come home sooner.”
In February, eight-year-old Constantin Jitaru hanged himself in Uricani village in western Romania while his mother was working in Germany. He had been performing well at school but apparently missed his mother.
In November, an 11-year-old boy killed himself in Mosna village, in the Moldova region. He and his two brothers had been left with another family by his parents, both of whom were working abroad.
The Romanian government says that 38,000 families have officially registered as having at least one parent out of the country looking for work, but the children’s group Alternative Sociale, which first raised the alarm, estimates that the real figure is 10 times higher. More than two million Romanians have left the country since 2000 and admission to the European Union in January this year has made it easier to work abroad.
“The parents don’t see it as abandoning their families, they see it as making a sacrifice, something they are doing for the good of their children. They leave with great expectations,” said Niculina Karacsony, head of the child protection services in Iasi, the capital of Moldova, one of the poorest regions in the area.
There is no official figure for the number of children who have killed themselves, but Mrs Karacsony said several cases were under investigation. Other children have reacted by going off the rails and ending up in prison.
“They would give up everything to have their parents home,” she said, rattling off some of the recent cases that had landed on her desk: a seven-year-old, about to start school, left with his neighbours, wondering why he has heard nothing from his parents; a three-year-old, left with an uncle when he was a few months old. When his parents returned from working in Spain, the boy did not recognise them.
More women leave than men, because it is easier to get jobs as housekeepers or childminders than it is to find work as a labourer. Those who go tend to be middle-class families, those with a higher standard of education, diplomas or degrees, such as nurses. They have made the decision to turn their backs on such jobs in favour of more menial, but better-paid, work.
In Ciortesti, near the eastern border with the Republic of Moldova and close to the border with Ukraine, the poverty is grinding.
At the age of 34, Liliane Suculiuc was pulling in 400 lei a month, less than pounds 100, serving beer and the local moonshine to farmers. Her husband, Catalin, 36, was a teacher who had not worked for six years.
Razvan was a good boy, she said, very bright, dutiful and well-educated. They wanted to give him a chance in life. “He was a boy who knew exactly what he wanted,” she said. “He liked to work on the computer at school. He wanted a computer so much.”
Liliane and Catalin talked it through. The only way they could afford it was if one or both of them went abroad to work. Catalin and Razvan went to wave her off on the bus. “Everybody was happy that I was leaving. Everything seemed normal,” she said.
She spoke to Razvan a couple of times a week on the telephone. “I didn’t feel he was upset about anything. Nobody noticed anything wrong with the boy,” she said. His father found him 10 minutes after he had hanged himself, but it was too late to save him.
It was not fair, she said. How were people expected to live on the money they could earn in Ciortesti?
“People need to buy food every day and pay for the utilities and what is needed around the house. I can’t imagine how other people like us in other countries can afford to have a maid and we can’t even afford food. Here I work so much and am so badly paid and there you can work and have a good salary.”
In the space of one month in Italy, she earned more than the family had previously made in a year. She bought a fridge, a mobile phone and other items and still had enough to return home with 1,000 euros.
In villages where the main form of transport is the horse and cart and the only income comes from state hand-outs or from farming tiny strips of land in shared fields, it is easy to spot which are the homes of families where the parents work abroad. They are the ones with the shiny new tin roofs.
Bumping over the uneven surface of the dirt road running through the centre of Liteni, Mr Moga, pointed them out. “Spain,” he said. “Italy, Italy, Spain.” He pointed to a large house with a gleaming roof: “They are farming in Greece. They come back only at Christmas.”
Andrei Tihulca, 10, and his seven-year-old brother Ionut, are star pupils at Mr Moga’s school, but they do not talk much, communicating mostly in written form. Their parents, Constantin and Daniela Tihulca, are working in Turin, the father in construction, the mother as a housekeeper. The children live with Ionela Tihulca, their 19-year-old cousin.
Yet in Liteni, they are considered the lucky ones. The house, set at the end of a dirt track across fields, is immaculate. They have a DVD player, a new television and new furniture.
Two shiny toys sit in pride of place on a veneer wall unit; a red Ferrari toy car and a spaceship, presents from Italy.
The family has a car and when Constantin and Daniela come home in August for a few weeks, they will take the children on a holiday around the country. The only thing lacking is running water.
Andrei sat quietly on a chair listening to Ionela, her questions eliciting only sheepish smiles or a couple of softly spoken words. Yes, he missed his parents. Yes, he wished they were home.
Only when he was handed the family photo album to choose his favourite pictures did he become animated, plucking out images of the family together, on a trip, standing at the side of the road. His face lit up. “Why these, Andrei?” Ionela asked. “Is it because you are all together?”
And he smiled, and nodded, and looked happy for the first time.