Since she was born, Zina Khachatryan's life has been marked by two seasons: the one with her father and the one without him. Now 13, the teenager from the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe–Javakheti, estimates a total of six and half years spent with him -- half of her life.
Zina was six months old when her father Samvel Khachatryan, then 21, left and headed to Russia to work -- just as he had been doing since he was 16. He is part of an army of men who seek employment abroad, leaving behind their families for six months of the year.
There are no precise figures about this seasonal migration from the Samtskhe–Javakheti region where Armenians make up the majority of the 160,000 residents.
“[W]e can estimate that up to 3,000 people travel every year to either Armenia or Russia for seasonal work and up to 30,000 have migrated in recent years. Of these migrants, two thirds [roughly 67 percent] went to Russia, about 30 percent to Armenia and the remaining to other countries, including Europe and the US,” notes Hrant Mikaelian, a researcher at the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute.
A recent survey carried out by Jnews.ge, a local news agency, also indicated that about 63 percent of the families in the region have at least one member who is a migrant worker. The number climbs up to 80 percent in small villages, like Khado, where job opportunities are scarce.
Between May and December most men of the village’s 2,500 residents are nowhere to be seen.
For half a year women bear the weight of everything, from bringing up children to working in the field -- during those months, the patriarchal society turns into a matriarchy.
“For half of the year the oldest man in the house is my 11-year-old brother, Serzh,” explains Zina whose uncle also works abroad. “He does most of the shopping in the village, women do not shop locally [as stores are owned by men]. They either go to Akhalkalaki [a nearby town, 16 kilometers away] or buy from women selling groceries door-to-door.”
Free education through high school means that over the years, men wait until later to seek employment abroad, but the trend has not stopped: the khopanchi, an Armenian term in use since the 1950s when laborers were employed in the Soviet Union’s Far East to reclaim vast swaths of land, continue to seek work elsewhere.
Most workers return to their families in early winter, when the cold weather puts a temporary halt to work in sectors like construction, where Khachatryan works. Hence December is a month of celebration for Zina as it marks her father’s return as well as her birthday.
“This year I asked him to bring me a cellphone and a silver ring. And my favorite chocolates,” she giggles. “Of course all of that doesn’t really matter, it’s the physical presence that matters to me. I just wish he was with us and everything will be alright.”
With the thaw comes the farewell. Until she was seven years old, she did not realized fully what it meant to be separated from her father - as time passes it gets harder.
“The last two years have been difficult. I can’t help crying when I see my father. I cry and he cries with me,“ Zina says.
Somehow Zina has tried to distance herself, cooling the relationship as a way to cope with the feeling of loss. Technology helps. Father and daughter talk via Skype, but short text messages with emoticons have become more frequent and Zina finds it increasingly difficult to ask her father directly for a favour or permission -- she turns to her mother instead.
Zina dreams of going to college and becoming a designer. She also thinks she will likely return to her native village, although she knows that if she does, her future husband will also likely leave for six months out of the year to work in Russia, just like her father.
“My parents always support my decisions and help me. I have enough time to study. After university I want to return [here] and yet at the same time I would like to travel and see the world.”