The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about severe economic collapse throughout the entire Central Asian region. Over the past 30 years, the economic development of the region’s now independent nations has progressed in very different ways.
Louise Amelie is a Berlin-based freelance photographer. Her work has been awarded the German Photo Book Prize several times.
Darja Nesterowa is a social worker and has worked in child and family welfare in Bishkek and Berlin.
Translated by Gráinne Toomey and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Particularly in Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous, sparsely populated country with around 6.5 million inhabitants, there is a shortage of jobs and options for social mobility. Even the monthly salary of a teacher or doctor is barely sufficient to cover the average living costs for a family. As a result, emigration for work is unavoidable for many.
With its strong economy, Russia forms the most popular destination for migrant workers, with many moving to Moscow, the former centre of the Soviet Union. Just under one million people from Kyrgyzstan live and work in Russia today. Every family has at least one member who is a migrant worker in another country.
Nearly One Million Kyrgyz Live and Work in Russia
After coming to Russia, the people work hard and put in long hours. They are mostly employed as taxi drivers, in factories, in construction, or as cleaners, in a place far away from their family where they struggle with obstacles daily. Language barriers, xenophobia, discrimination, and exploitative working arrangements result in them being socially isolated and living in precarious circumstances.
They send the money they earn back home to their families in Kyrgyzstan. This money often goes towards providing for their own children, who they have left with relatives for an indefinite period of time. The money that is transferred back to Kyrgyzstan makes up an astonishing 30 percent of the country’s GDP, indicating just how heavily households there rely on economic migration.
What does migration mean for those left behind? This series by photographer Louise Amelie, created in summer 2021 in collaboration with social worker Darja Nesterova, provides insights into families in Kyrgyzstan as they wait for their relatives to return from abroad.
The lack of jobs for trained professionals and academics is a dilemma that affects the entire country. Corruption has infiltrated the education sector due to political instability. Many people cannot pay for their own education or for that of their children, or do not see investment in education as providing future security. The fear of not being able to find a job related to their education is too great.
People of working age drop out of school in order to work in Bishkek or Moscow. They are often under pressure to support their families financially.
Patriarchal Social Structures with Little Freedom to Choose
Deeply rooted social and intra-family hierarchies mean that many young men do not have the freedom to make their own decisions. They are only considered by their families to be of age once they bring enough money home, or acquire a high social status.
Particularly for women, the emancipatory aspect of migration makes it a serious consideration — in many cases it offers them the opportunity to free themselves of patriarchal social systems. Despite the often difficult conditions experienced in Russia, men and women have more say over how they want to live their lives there.
Nurik, 30, supplements his wife’s income by working as a private taxi driver in the Kyrgyz city of Osch. He had to give up his legal studies due to financial hardship, and worked for four years as a construction worker in Russia. Without his degree, there are no jobs for him in Kyrgyzstan — a fate shared by many of his classmates.
He knows many married couples that have grown apart because they have been living at a distance. Their realities have become too different, which makes living together difficult. Life is particularly tough for divorced mothers in Kyrgyzstan, since there is no support for single parents.
In more traditional families, the woman is often blamed when a couple separates and her reputation is damaged. Relatives often view her as bringing shame on the family, even if domestic violence was the reason for separating.
Despite having completed her medical studies, Merim, who is married to Nurik, works as a teacher at the faculty of medicine in Osch. To be able to practise as a doctor, she would have to first complete a training year costing 2500 som per month (around 25 euro), but her family cannot afford this.
Merim and Nurik dream of finding work abroad, preferably in Austria or the Czech Republic. Their wish to leave the country as a family is complicated by the strict European entry requirements for people from Kyrgyzstan. Merim is willing to emigrate alone, but does not want to leave her husband to care for their three children alone. Her youngest son, in particular, is still very dependent on her and would not be able to cope with her absence. Nevertheless, she is considering leaving her children in the care of her sister.
The Educated Rarely Stay
Children from well-off families have the rare opportunity to find employment in Europe or the US. Few highly educated people remain in the country. In the villages in dry, hot regions such as Batken and Osch in particular, there are few prospects. It is common for young people to leave their families at 16 years of age.
This was the case for the 24-year-old Kyrgyz mother that we encountered in the Chong-Kemin valley. She has been living in Russia for five years and her first son was born there. This was the first time she could afford a holiday to Kyrgyzstan to visit her parents and sisters.
Her sisters are saddened by her impending departure. Despite often being lonely in Russia and missing her family, she plans to stay there to give her son the chance of a better future. She is unsure when she will visit Kyrgyzstan again. Many parents decide to leave their children behind in their native country, in the care of siblings or grandparents.
On the northern shore of Issyk-Kul Lake, a young mother with four children lives and works in a small village in the summer months. She sells home-made dairy products in a small shop in front of her parents’ home. She and the children usually live in a small apartment in Bishkek, but spend the summer with her parents at this famous alpine lake in order to flee the heat of the city.
Two of the children in her care belong to her brother, who has gone to Russia with his wife. It is uncertain when they will return next. Their living situation in Russia is not yet suitable for their children to join them, and their earnings are low.
The woman is often overwhelmed by the task of raising the four children, who are of a similar age, and is relieved that her parents can support her. The children sometimes talk to their parents by video call, but the latter rarely have the time to do so.
The woman’s older sister left for Germany ten years ago to work as a nanny. She has now found a job in Bavaria at the airport, is married, and has a son. She misses her sister a lot and they phone each another often.
Loss of Personal Connection
In Kyrgyzstan, an estimated 277,000 children have been left behind with relatives or in care institutions. Communication between relatives and children is often difficult. Relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren can also be especially prone to conflict if they can no longer fulfil, or comprehend, the emotional needs of the children.
But communication between parents living abroad and their children can often also be challenging. For several years, children only have contact with their parents via smartphone, which means that the quality and depth of communication suffers. Many parents do not know what their children need, and they lose the human connection to them. They are unable to meet the emotional needs of their children from a distance.
The only thing children hear from their parents are questions about how they are, whether they are looking after their sister, how their grandmother is, whether they are going to school regularly, and so on — they usually do not have the time to talk to them about their feelings, concerns, and problems.
Children often don’t know what their parents are doing abroad, why they left, when they will come back, or if they will ever live together again. This creates a kind of emotional void for children that is not talked about. Parents attempt to console their children with material gifts.
Children whose parents live abroad regularly miss school, and their teachers often observe them exhibiting problematic behaviour. In addition, a disturbingly high number of cases of children experiencing physical and psychological abuse from their relatives has been recorded in recent years. Girls in particular are put at risk of sexual abuse when living without the protection of their parents.
If their relatives cannot care for them for financial reasons, children are placed in state-run or private children’s homes for a temporary period. Children whose parents work abroad and who have experienced violence at the hands of relatives often end up living on the street and are placed in these institutions by the authorities. Most children living in these homes are known as social orphans, meaning that they are children whose parents are unable to look after them due to their low socioeconomic status.
The risk of exposure to all forms of abuse is even higher in homes or boarding schools. Children live in social isolation: most have never left their place of birth. Neither private nor public children’s homes have enough financial resources to engage the children or care for them adequately.
Machabat, the director of the children’s home in Karakol, feels abandoned by the state, which seems indifferent to the fate of these children. Too few staff and material resources have a negative impact on the children’s psychological development. Machabat is herself considering leaving Kyrgyzstan and moving to Russia with her own children. She has not seen any improvements to the economic situation in recent years, and therefore has little faith in the government.
For some families, being separated for long periods of time is unthinkable. Parents attempt to cover the daily needs for their family by toiling in the fields, or as mountain shepherds. Economic migration within the country thus also splits up many families. The opportunity of being able to go to Russia for work in case of need, however, offers some security.
Being split up for a short or an indefinite period is now normal for many families in Kyrgyzstan, because this is often the only way to cope with everyday family life. Waiting for a mother, father, son, or daughter becomes a constant, demanding, and exhausting challenge for the family left behind. In both Russia and Kyrgyzstan, the separated family members struggle for their families’ well-being.