When Madalina Oprisan was 13, her mother left their home in Romania to work as a cleaner in Israel. They have seen each other just four times in the 13 years since then.
Madalina and her younger sister Ioana moved in with different aunts in their home town of Bacau. Madalina was timid, a mediocre pupil seen as having no chance of getting to university. She had a troubled family history – a father who rejected her and a stepfather who was violent.
Madalina and Ioana had all the traits to be central characters in one of many heartbreaking media reports in recent years on so-called “children left behind” – youngsters from Eastern Europe whose parents move abroad to find work, leaving them to live with relatives or fend for themselves.
Often, these stories in domestic and international media outlets have highlighted extreme cases, in which children turn to violence or even suicide. But, migration experts say, the full picture of this phenomenon is more complex, revealing advantages as well as drawbacks.
After her mother left, Madalina blossomed. She took part in school competitions, had her own page in the local newspaper, graduated from the best high school in town and studied journalism in Bucharest on a scholarship.
“It was hard for me to be raised like this, on Skype. At the same time, it made me stronger,” Madalina, now a thoughtful 26-year-old, says in a restaurant in central Bucharest.
Madalina is no isolated case. In the course of researching this story, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network interviewed dozens of successful young adults who grew up with parents living abroad.
Among them were an automotive engineer, a systems engineer, a sales manager, an artist, a musician, an assistant psychologist, and students taking degrees in subjects ranging from economics to architecture.
While growing up with one or both parents living abroad can be tough, analysts say, it can also give children skills and resources that help them thrive later in life.
“There are a few isolated tragic cases and the media is using them to attract an audience,” says Victoria Nedelciuc, a migration expert at the Open Society Foundation in Bucharest. “But there are many advantages to migration.”
Ms. Nedelciuc notes that the money parents send back enables children to buy computers and learn how to use technology, to go to better colleges and universities and to travel abroad.
After graduation, Madalina worked as a reporter for a leading television station and is now a communications manager for a non-profit that helps other charities make use of technology.
She remembers with a grim expression when her mother was selling newspapers, cans of food from Turkey and cigarettes from Moldova.
“If she’d kept working for 300 euros ($365) a month, she wouldn’t have sent me to college, paid for my private classes or my trips,” she says. “I saw Paris before Bucharest.”
Thousands ‘left behind’
According to the Romanian Department of Child Protection, more than 84,000 children have one or both of their parents working abroad. But non-governmental organisations estimate that the true number is around 350,000 — the highest of any European country.
Many of those who grew up in this situation feel misunderstood, particularly when they are branded “abandoned children” by the media.
Andrei Dobra, a veteran Romanian blogger, was 13 when his parents moved to Spain, leaving him, an only child, with an aunt.
“I never felt abandoned and I never felt any hatred towards them. I know they left and made these sacrifices for me, for us,” says Mr. Dobra, now 28.
However, studies by non-profit groups show that youngsters can face serious social and emotional problems if one or both of their parents are living abroad.
Fifteen percent of children with parents abroad had problems with the police, compared to only 10 percent of those living with their parents, according to one study.
Thirty-six percent of children with both parents abroad said they felt lonely, while 22 percent believed no one loved them, according to another piece of research.
Another risk is the deterioration of the relationship between parent and child.
The Oprisan sisters adapted differently to their mother’s absence. Ioana has maintained a relatively close relationship with her while Madalina has largely broken off communication.
“She left before I had my first period. I was at my aunt’s, harvesting potatoes, and I got very scared as nobody warned me,” Madalina says. “It’s too much time spent apart.”
Advocacy groups have been fighting for years to get greater legal protection for children with parents living abroad. After going through eight drafts, the Romanian Parliament finally adopted a new Law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of the Child in September 2013.
The law includes a fine of 500 to 1,000 Romanian lei (about $135 to $270) for parents who do not inform authorities that they are leaving to work abroad and secure a judge’s approval of a guardian for their children at least 40 days before they depart.
To help children cope with having a parent abroad, the charity Save the Children has introduced a program called ‘We grow up together’ in 16 schools around the country.
Over three years, specialists have helped more than 2,000 children by assisting with homework, providing access to computers to establish better communication with parents and offering individual psychological counseling.
In 2013, 70 percent of the children in the program improved their academic results and 46 percent won awards in school competitions, according to Save the Children.
Where teachers are mothers
Some schools have undertaken their own efforts to help children with parents who live abroad.
In the village of Raducaneni in northern Romania, unpaved, muddy roads trampled day after day by horses and carts open up to newly built homes.
According to the local authorities, up to 150 parents from the village’s 500 families have gone abroad to work.
The director of the local school, Coca Codreanu, lists the extracurricular activities organized for the children left behind such as drama, music and art groups.
“We, as a school, are doing our best to be parents, doctors, and friends for them,” she says.
In an old classroom with blue and white walls and a stove in the corner, Alexandra Ladan, a 10-year-old girl with short dark hair, is among six children in her class with parents abroad.
Alexandra’s mother left for Italy when she was seven months old.
The two are friends on Facebook. This is how Alexandra knows her mother has another family. “She posts short videos with the new baby,” Alexandra says.
On some Sundays, they talk via Facebook chat. But her mother never calls. Not even on birthdays. At this point, Alexandra, who lives with her father and grandparents, starts crying.
A few months ago, Alexandra's mother came back to Romania for a visit and saw her daughter for the first time in 10 years. Alexandra says it felt "strange" to be with her mother again.
Despite the trauma she has endured, Alexandra is one of the best pupils in the class, according to her teacher, Ecaterina Pascaloaie.
Whether children such as Alexandra fare well academically and emotionally depends on factors including their own personality and the support they receive from key adults, experts say.
“I’ve met children who were left home alone and succeeded either because they had a very strong wish to do so and loved school, or because they were fortunate enough to have people who helped them such as a class teacher, a classmate or a grandmother,” says Luminita Costache, educational programs coordinator at the Romanian branch of the UN children’s agency UNICEF.
"In each case, something worked — either the child's internal motivation or another person close to them helped them cope with the situation.”
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.