Georgia: “My coronary heart is sort of a stone”

When Irma Kravishvili traveled from Georgia to Greece as an illegal immigrant, she feared dying during the four-day journey.

After traveling through Turkey on a bus, she and eight other female passengers – none of whom had visas – were forced to hide in the luggage compartment of a tour bus. The only ventilation came from a small fan; If it didn’t work, the women knew they could die in minutes.

“It was shocking for me,” said Kravishvili, now 54, describing the trip in 2006, for which she paid 2,800 euros. “I was on the brink of life and death. We were not informed of the conditions and it came as a surprise to us when, after crossing the Turkish border, they asked us to hide in this small, dark box that was meant for luggage and not people.

“But little did I know it would be less of a problem than the difficulties that awaited me as a migrant.”

Most migrant workers in Georgia are women who work in low-paid domestic services to support families left at home.

“If you see your child is hungry, is the mother a real mother if she does not sacrifice herself?”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and two civil wars, the country’s extreme poverty led many Georgian women to seek work in Europe. Most, like Kravishvili, traveled without legal documents along dangerous smuggling routes.

Mari Khachapuridze recalled her own arduous journey to Greece 15 years ago.

“I went through a terrible route crossing the sea in inflatable boats with other women at midnight,” said the 50-year-old. “It wasn’t easy, but the problems forced me, I had no other choice, we had no money for food at home and two small children had to eat. My husband could not work because of his health. So I decided to leave.”

She continued, “When you see your child is hungry, the mother is a [real] Mother, if she doesn’t sacrifice herself?”

Khachapuridze has not returned to Georgia since and has only been able to see her two sons once after Georgia’s visa liberalization with the EU.

According to the last census in Georgia in 2014, 55 percent of migrant workers were women, with Greece being one of the most popular destination countries. Most work in families as caretakers or housekeepers, cleaning the house and preparing food. A lack of knowledge of the local language prevents them from finding better jobs. They usually save on expenses by living in the same house where they work or by letting several migrants rent an apartment together.

Since they have no right to stay and work in the country, the employment is mostly illegal and therefore poorly paid in European comparison. But even this money is significantly more than is easy to earn in Georgia.

“I had no choice but to leave,” Kravishvili said. “We had a lot of debt, a mortgage on a house, also two student girls who needed my support. Having never been abroad, I had no idea what to expect.”

emotional challenges

In a country where unemployment is over 20 percent, many families depend on the income of relatives who live and work abroad.

“My mother lived in Greece and she recommended me to come,” said Sophiko Mzhavanadze, 38, who left Georgia more than 11 years ago. “I got married when I was 17 years old. I lived in western Georgia, a small village. I was busy raising my two boys but my dream was to have an apartment in the city. In order to give my children a better life, I left them and came to Greece to raise the children of strangers.”

Personal remittances have steadily increased year on year, accounting for 13.3 percent of Georgia’s total GDP in 2020, according to World Bank data.

Only transfers via official transfer channels are taken into account, but not money that is sent with acquaintances or that emigrants bring with them personally when visiting. The actual proportion of remittances is estimated to be significantly higher.

Tinatin Zurabishvili is Research Director of CRRC-Georgia, an NGO that collects and analyzes data on social, economic and political trends.

She said that women’s emigration has social consequences, which often have consequences for female family members left behind.

“When women leave, it inevitably affects the roles in their families,” she said. “Husbands in Georgia are not particularly keen on taking on household chores. If possible, mothers or mothers-in-law of emigrants help with the housework.

“We don’t have detailed and representative research data on this, but there is evidence, supported by qualitative data, that often the eldest daughters of migrant mothers take on their mothers’ household chores and often also look after their younger siblings.”

Historically, Surabishvili continued, women have been viewed as secondary migrants who followed their male relatives, rather than as independent economic agents. This is changing, she said.

“The demand for labor in Western countries explicitly favored female migrants, so families in Georgia adjusted their strategies accordingly, migrating women instead of men,” concluded Zurabishvili.

Many women plan to work abroad for just a few years, but in practice few return so quickly.

“There are always new needs and new problems,” Khachapuridze said. “I left sons who are seven and eight years old and now they are students and need more of my help. So the thought of a return is far away so far.”

Mzhavanadze now accepts that her future lies in Greece.

“I will stay here as long as I can support my sons so they don’t experience the same life as me,” she said, adding that her goal is to make sure her children have a quality of life so they “can move on.” in Georgia and not to be enslaved like me”.

But the long absence from home and family brings its own emotional consequences.

Two months after her arrival in Greece, Kravishvili learned of her husband’s sudden death. As an almost penniless undocumented migrant, she was unable to return.

“This is the great sadness of my life. I couldn’t accompany my husband on his last trip,” she said. “Even now I blame myself for his death, I think if I had been in Georgia I might have been able to save his life, maybe things would have been different but who knows?”

Likewise, Khachapuridze was unable to attend the funerals of her brother and mother, who died after she left Georgia.

“All these tragedies have made my heart like a stone,” she said. “I can’t feel any more emotions.”