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Not Your Messiah: Why Romanian Families Invest in Exit Strategies

Miriam is a Masters student studying in the Netherlands. Her piece explores an ethical dilemma faced by many young Romanians.

My happiness or my country’s, which shall it be? In a better world, the two would not be opposed, but in Romania they are. Corrupted politics has pushed families to choose between fight or flight strategies, scattering the members of what was once seen in my culture as a fundamental unity. It has weakenedour moral judgement, making us believe that change can only come from the next generations. This creates a Messiah narrative, where the youth must fight to solve the country’s problems. I, too, used to believe this was my duty. Now, I am not so sure.

How Deep the Corruption Goes

The ethical question at the heart of this is: should young Romanians be expected to stay here, pushing for change, at a risk to their own and their family’s lives, or can they leave to pursue their dreams?

Talking about Romania’s corruption problem to a Western audience can be awkward. It brings into the spotlight illegalities that are interwoven with the deepest layers of society. After a while, stories stop being outrageous, and become common facts of Romanian life, shocking only to visitors. However, there are some that haunt even us, that force us to understand how deadly the system is, like Colectiv.

In the autumn of 2015, a fire burnt down the club Colectiv during a youth concert. The flames started from the band’s sparkler fireworks and in a matter of seconds expanded across the whole roof. There was one exit door and one fire extinguisher. As a result, 27 people died on the spot, 180 were burnt, 37 later died in hospitals. The club had all the required safety papers, forged with the authorities’ consent.

Our horror turned into mass protests, which led to the resignation of the Prime Minister, Victor Ponta. But the corruption went beyond the disruption of safety regulations. The detergent used in over 300 hospitals had been watered down and contained less than 10% of active substances stated on the label. Young people with minor burns died from bacterial infections.

Alexander Nanu’s Oscar-nominated documentary recounts these events and reveals just how rotten the system is. It also shows how the criticized Social Party won the elections by a landslide just one year after the fire.

For many, Colectiv was the last straw. It showed that Romania was no longer a place where parents could safely raise their children, let alone try to make sense of life.

In this context, families must choose between fight or flight strategies, in order to give themselves a chance to live. Their plan depends on their economic class and education, and it usually focuses on the financial well-being of their children. The ethical question at the heart of this is: should young Romanians stay and risk their own and their family’s lives, or can they leave to pursue their dreams?

The Flee Strategy – The Common One

Not all students want to be Romania's needed Messiah.

Romania is the country with the biggest migration rate in the European Union, competing with the numbers from Syria. According to the government website, almost 10 million Romanians live abroad, as part of historical communities and the diaspora. To put this in perspective, there are 19,4 million people living in Romania, meaning that a third of all Romanians have left their homeland.

Differences in economic class are accompanied by different responsibilities. If you come from a working-class background or from a rural area, more often than not, you are expected to send money back to your remaining relatives. If you are born into a middle-class family, your parents will invest in you, without expectations of financial support after you finish your studies.

Sometimes, after one member of the family has achieved a satisfactory economic status, other family members move to live with them. They see it as proof that this work strategy can grant you a decent life. They leave in their wake empty villages, populated only by the locals who are too old to work.

The middle-class strategy is to focus on education. Parents pay for extra hours of tuition, language classes, volunteering experiences, all to make sure that their children will receive a proper education throughout high school. The aim is to send them to study abroad. Before Brexit, the UK was the favoured destination of Romanian students, with almost 3,000 students attending university each year.

Along with Poles and Bulgarians, Romanian workers play a key role in the nomadic economic business model of the European Union. Finding more financial satisfaction working abroad than in their homelands, some choose a life of seasonal labour, working the fields of Spain, Germany, Italy and France. Often work conditions are harsh and humiliating. Such was the case with the German meat industry scandal, where 1,000 workers were infected with coronavirus, the majority being Romanians.

Young Romanians Want a Life of Their Own

Beneath names such as “strawberry pickers,” “came-to-take-our-jobs and other xenophobic chants, lies the call to go back to your own country.

Not all students want to be Romania’s needed Messiah. In 2018, a survey among Romanians who studied abroad highlighted how political corruption was the main reason for their not returning home. Small salaries were another. However, some students decided to return to Romania to be with their relatives, despite the country’s lack of social and professional support.

The divergence between the Western values and the Romanian ones makes many young people feel disconnected from their homeland, where their values are not shared. This is the case for my sister, who is now studying piano in Zürich, Switzerland. She plans to remain there, where she can build a solid career. Or for my friend, who studied art in Italy and the UK, and can’t find a decent salary or a place for her work in Romania.

Life abroad can be as difficult as in Romania. As anti-immigration sentiment grows across Europe,it becomes clear that you are unwelcome in your new home, despite your hard work. Beneath names such as “strawberry pickers,” “came-to-take-our-jobs and other xenophobic chants, lies the call to go back to your own country. Then again, you are always welcome to return for the picking season, when there are not enough Western employees willing to work forlow wages.After all, this was the case with the seasonal labourers asked to pick asparagus in Germany amidst the pandemic.

Revolution Fatigue

I study in the Netherlands, and I am currently not sure what my next step will be. I waver between comfort and duty, unsure as to if I should follow the footsteps of my sister and try to find happiness abroad or return to Romania: To fight against crooked politicians is not exactly the romantic life-changing experience that poets frequently write about, especially if you are on your own.

When the world seems borderless and full of promises, I feel pressured to turn my head towards my country and plan my life according to its needs. I would love to have the luxury to pursue my dreams, and care only about my family, while others fight the big battles. However, I cannot help but wonder whether I will also become part of the problem?

It is easy to call people who defend their compromises, saying “everybody does this,” immoral. But moral certainty stops here. Voices that say that nothing can be done, that they tried, and failed are the ones that frighten me. I know too many. They make me question if it is wrong to leave a battle that favours only the conformists. Then again, what happens if everybody leaves? I hear people complain that because the young have deserted, corrupted dynasties triumph. However, it is difficult to condemn somebody for not wanting to be a pillar of a society that is crumbling.

With so many broken by the system, I start to doubt our methods of fight. Why do we rely on others to fight our battles, while we are gone? These problems require more than a Messiah. They demand a response from all of us. One teenager cannot change the machinery of corruption, while others conform to it. Great movements always have sacrificial lambs, but they do not rely solely on them. For, in the end, systemic problems can only be challenged by systemic solutions.


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