In the Georgian village of Jandari, labor migration has touched nearly every family. Increasingly, it is the women who are leaving. While that is not a new trend for Georgia as a whole, it is a relatively radical development for Jandari.
The village is populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis and traditionally women have married young and stayed at home, financially dependent on their fathers and husbands.
But now that dynamic is changing.
There are few opportunities in the village, where most residents do not know the Georgian language and have difficulty finding work.
Men started to look for work in nearby countries — mainly Turkey, Russia and Ukraine — about 15 years ago. Local women began leaving about a decade ago. As more women left the village in search of work, the community learned there are more jobs available for them: while men are largely limited to employment in construction or other labor-intensive fields, women can work as a nurse, a nanny or a housecleaner.
Today locals say that about half of the female residents of Jandari have or are working abroad, mostly in Turkey. The younger generation is even more inclined to leave: ten years ago, most women who left were over the age of 40. Today, women as young as 25 are heading to Turkey to find jobs.
Is the trend simply a response to extreme poverty? Or does the act of going abroad provide these women with a chance at real independence?
The situation is complicated.
While they provide vital income for their families, the community views these women with suspicion. Villagers tend to look down on women who leave the community to work abroad, with some even labeling them as “immoral,” even though those who leave are making a huge personal sacrifice. By going abroad, the women are basically relinquishing their role as mothers, leaving their children in the care of their own mothers or mothers-in-laws. Marriages also suffer under the weight of extended absences.
In addition, the women face discrimination abroad, according to those who have worked in Turkey. They report employers force them to work more hours for the same pay locals receive.
The women say, however, that working abroad also gives them confidence and, in some cases, their first taste of financial independence.
Here are four stories about the women who have left to work abroad, told by those left behind, as well as by a migrant woman herself.
Their second mom
Ganira, 57 years old
Ganira’s daughter-in-law and son have been working in Turkey for more than four years, making her the sole caregiver for their children. Her grandchildren were very young when their parents left, and they have started to view Ganira as their second mom.
“The youngest is a little over two and, to him, I am his mother,” she says.
She added that while her daughter-in-law used to come home once every three months, it has now been over a year since her last visit, in part because the couple’s Turkish employers are paying them a lot less now.
“If their salary had been 700-800 dollars, they now only receive 400-500 lira. But there is no work here at all, so there is no point in quitting their jobs, even if the salary is low,” Ganira said.
In the village there are two types of work: selling crops or fresh milk in the local market or selling goods at a local shop. “And the shops in Jandari can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” she says.
We are different because of our mother
Guller, 26 years old
Guller’s mother went to work in Turkey 10 years ago, three years after her father left. Four children — two brothers and two sisters — were left on their own. “I was 15 and my sister was 21, so she was in charge,” Guller says.
The youngest brother was only four when their mother left.
“When he used to ask about her, we would tell him that she had gone to collect tomatoes from the garden. He started to understand the truth when he was old enough to go to school.”
“Every child dreams about having some toys or entertainment, but all I ever wanted was for our family to be together. We understood that my father had to be absent, but to be so far from our mother was a tragedy,” Guller says before her voice starts to break and she turns away.
Today Guller works in Tbilisi but still lives in Jandari to be with her brother. Her father has also returned from Turkey.
She says that she is proud of her mother and has never blamed her for leaving them. “Although she never received a higher education, my mother always encouraged us to study. My sister is a journalist, and I'm going to be a lawyer. My brother studies at the university while serving in the army. We are different because of her,” Guller says.
Guller says that in Jandari, teaching has traditionally been viewed as the only appropriate profession for a girl. Many people still believe it is immoral for girls to work at any other job. But the situation is changing, and women feel more confident. Many husbands have started to appreciate their wives and respect them for saving the family from financial crisis, Guller says.
Barn of loans
Shahliq, 71 years old
Many members of Shahliq’s family used to work in Turkey — her sister, grandson, daughter-in-law and son.
“I didn’t go because I am too old to work abroad, and I have cows to care for. The milk that we receive from the cows is the only source of income we have in Jandari,” she says.
Shahliq notes, however, that it is expensive to feed 10 cows. She can no longer take them to graze in nearby pastures, because the government sold the public fields and local farmers now need to pay 3000 GEL (approximately 1125 dollars) a year to use them. The second option is to feed them hay. While that is less expensive, it is still outside her means.
“I took a loan from the bank for 2350 GEL. And I have to pay it back, including interest, which is now at 4000 GEL. I receive 180 GEL a month as a pension, and will have to pay 90 GEL a month for four years to repay the loan,” she says.
In addition, the loan was only enough to buy hay for one year; every year more money is needed for hay.
“Of course, 90 GEL is not enough to feed such a large family, even with the income I earn by selling fresh milk products. The only way out was to send my daughter-in-law and my son to work in Turkey to pay off the debts and to earn money for us to live on.”
Her grandson returned to Jandari after the lira fell, but he is 28 and should get married, she notes.
“A wedding also costs a lot of money: you either take out a loan and pay it back, or go to work and save the money. Either way, to create a future for himself, he will have to go to Turkey again, despite the fact that the salaries there are smaller now,” Shahliq says.
Not a day without Turkish coffee
Elmira, 47 years old
“I went to work in Turkey to be financially independent. My husband always earned good money working in Russia, but then the ruble fell and our income fell significantly,” Elmira says.
Her children were older enough to live on their own, she says, adding that she also wanted to earn money so her youngest son, who graduates from high school this year, can afford to enter university.
“I found a woman in Turkey who offered me a room for 10-20 lira a day, where I was confined until she found me a job as a housecleaner. After I got the job, I had to give her half of my salary for two weeks. This is how women from Jandari find work in Turkey,” Elmira says.
Life in Turkey changed Elmira a lot; she has started to socialize more and take advantage of opportunities for work and personal development. “When you live in a village, you do the same things every single day. Over time, you literally grow stupid,” she says.
In Turkey Elmira constantly meets people from Jandari and nearby Marneuli. But it is mostly women because there are more jobs in Turkey for women.
She notes that migrant women constantly face discrimination in Turkey.
“I have one day off a week, but it is not always possible to take it. Everything depends on the job and there have been times when I had to work three weeks without a day off. Also we have to work more hours than Turkish women for the same pay,” she says.
‘Physically you can rest somehow, but morally — never. During the first year I cried like a child all the time. The first year, I didn’t want to go anywhere after work. My only entertainment was going to a café for a cup of Turkish coffee,” Elmira say
Now Elmira’s daughter and her family also live in Istanbul, which has significantly improved Elmira’s quality of life.
“I run from work rejoicing like a child when I visit them. ‘I am at home’ I say to myself and I am at peace.”
Journeys, December/January 2018/2019