The investigation

The mothers of the so called “white orphans”

 Le madri degli orfani bianchi  DCM-004
02 April 2022

The broken families of caregivers and the “Italy Syndrome”.


“After twenty years of working as a production technician, the factory fired me. They had decided to move the equipment to China. At home, we had no food. I left Romania out of desperation, and found work as a caregiver in Italy. I left behind two daughters and an elderly mother. I could not see them for six years. When I was able to return for a few days, I had lost the habit of holding them, so I used to hug my daughters all the time. I no longer felt like a mother, just a pocket with money and a voice on the phone”. Liliana Nechita has a writers talent when telling the story of her divided life, the fatigue of being an emigrant and the pain of feelings felt, but prevented by distance.  Liliana  recounts this pain in her debut book, Ciliegie amare [Bitter Cherries]. In Romania, it was very successful; it brought her prizes and awards. It contained the emotions, the lacerations that thousands of women share, they who come from poor countries to the rich world, to take care of children and the elderly of wealthy families leaving behind their own children, and their elderly.

According to the Council of Europe, there are up to one million “white orphans”, the name by which the children of emigrant parents are referred, in Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. In Romania alone, UNICEF estimates that fathers and mothers who have gone to work abroad leave behind 350,000 children and young people. “In rural Romania there is a vacuum; on the streets you only meet old people and children”, says Silvia Dumitrache, a Romanian from Bucharest, who came to Italy in 2003 to help with the cost of care for her sick son. In Milan, where she lives, she founded the Association of Romanian Women in Italy.

The story goes like this: “I was in the kitchen, and on television they were showing a documentary called Home Alone. I heard Romanian being spoken, so I paid attention. It told the story of three young boys, sons of emigrant mothers, who had killed themselves. One of them had said to a classmate, “you’ll see, I’ll make my mother come back”. The next day he hung himself. His mother did come back, but to mourn him. The sky fell on my head. I thought: I have to do something”. One of Adri’s first initiatives was the Te iubeste mama!  [Mum Loves You]. Dumitrache says: “I launched a petition on Facebook to facilitate audiovisual communication at a distance between parents and children. Thousands of people signed up. I got in touch with Romanian libraries and Italian institutions to allow mothers and children to talk to each other through the screen of a tablet”.

However, a tablet “cannot replace a hug”, warns Maria Grazia Vergari, professor of developmental psychology at the Auxilium Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences. Vergari teaches on the Domina training courses, an association of families of domestic employers. She explains, “The suffering of people who work in our homes as caregivers is often secret, and hidden. Women don’t talk much about the children they have left behind,  out of modesty, out of shame. They feel guilty, sometimes they feel angry. They know it is right to have sought a way to support the family, but they also know they are paying a very high price”.

According to Domina’s annual report, there are two million domestic workers in Italy and six out of 10 are working illegally. There are 402,000 caregivers alone, 92 percent of whom are foreigners - and more than 42 percent come from Eastern European countries. Some of them have had traumatic experiences, including humiliation, and stressful working conditions. In 2005, two Ukrainian psychiatrists, Andriy Kiselyov and Anatoliy Faifrych, coined the formula “Italy syndrome” to define a special form of depression affecting caregivers. An investigation by the Corriere della Sera national newspaper reported 200 admissions per year in the Romanian Socola psychiatric clinic. In addition to the suffering of these women often weighed the pain of divided families. Maria Grazia Vergari explains: “Sometimes some children, when their mothers came back to visit them, rejected them”. In Butea, in the north-east of Romania, one of the poorest areas in the country, there is a home run by the Missionary Sisters of the Passion of Jesus. For fourteen years it welcomed “white orphans” too. When the outbreak of the pandemic struck they were advised to limit themselves to caring for the elderly. However, some religious remember the children’s frosty reception of their visiting mothers, that insistent asking “Didn’t you bring me the new cell phone? And, where’s the money?”.

Today, things are slowly changing. Silvia Dumitrache observes, “Younger parents stay six months abroad and six in Romania. They point to Germany and Northern Europe, countries that are more organized. There are some who have managed to bring their family to Italy. These are individual initiatives, because in Romania there are no public policies for transnational families”. Every now and then, someone rebels. Like Vasilica Baciu, who in the early 2000s left two children aged nine and eleven in Romania to work in Italy as a caregiver. For ten years, she could only see them once every 12 months. Last spring, with the help of two lawyers, Sonia Sommacal and Angela Maria Bitonti, Vasilica Baciu filed an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights demanding that Italy and Romania respond to the inertia and indifference shown on the issue of migration.

As Angela Maria Bitonti states,“For Romania, the emigrants’ remittances are a substantial part of the GDP and Italy, thanks to the migrants, enjoys a flexible and low-cost workforce. However, the children live suspended lives, they suffer significant consequences, which include, dropping out of school, depressive syndromes, even suicide. This is unacceptable”.

Liliana Nechita, who continues to work as a carer in Italy while working on a new novel, points out, “Years ago, forty-year-olds were leaving, now many qualified young people are leaving Romania. Half of the workforce has left. Politicians should consider emigration a tragedy. Instead, it turns its back and the lowly and the poor remain lowly and poor”.

The suffering of those little ones has already become the subject of a novel. With Sindrome Italia. O delle vite sospese [Italy Syndrome. Or Suspended Lives] by Tiziana Vaccaro, it has been prepared for the theater. When it enters the political agenda, that will be a great day.

by Bianca Stancanelli