While putting the finishing touches on our website, we spent a considerable amount of time at internet cafés in Tbilisi, Georgia. At one café, we noticed a semi-private room set up with couches, comfortable chairs and computers outfitted with webcams for video Skype calls. The typical configuration: children and grandmother crowded around the computer and Mommy or Daddy on the video screen. So, what's going on here?
This is a case of missing parents – those who have left Georgia to work in Europe, America, or Russia to support their families back home.
There was the girl we met in Tbilisi's Sololaki neighborhood on our first day. At 14, she was bright, friendly and spoke remarkably good English. Her parents, trained as doctors, moved to London two years ago. She now lives with her grandmother and voices her hopes that her parents will be able to visit Tbilisi soon. She asked us questions about our visits to London in an attempt to obtain an objective opinion on her parents' new home.
Then there's Vera, a kind Armenian-North Ossetian woman who had lived in Bakuriani her whole life. Recently, she had taken on the responsibility of raising several of her relatives' children after their parents moved abroad. When she discovered we were from America, she asked one nine-year old girl she was caring for, “Where does your mother live in America?” The little girl had no idea. Vera said the mother left four years ago and hasn't visited nor been in touch, except to send money each month. Vera was visibly upset by the situation. Holding back tears, she explained that grandmothers raising the children of parents working abroad is common in her region.
In nearby Borjomi, our host Marina explained how she began to rent out a room in her apartment to tourists in order to earn money to raise her son. Her husband died shortly after her son was born; there was no work for her in Borjomi. Although most of her friends have moved away to work in Europe, she couldn't bring herself to leave her mother and son behind, even if it meant a lower standard of living. She's one of the few from her high school class in Borjomi who has resisted the temptation of moving abroad.
We're all used to watching news pieces of families separated for economic reasons in transitional and developing economies, but it carries a different meaning when you actually meet the people affected. Is there a viable alternative until more jobs and a sustainable economy emerges in Georgia? It's difficult to say, as those left behind suffer emotionally while depending on their parents contributions from abroad.