Thousands of Polish nurses, caregivers and workmen leave the country for employment. That has consequences: Many Polish children grow up without parents, who are gone for months or even years at a time.
Polish internet sites are full of stories from children who feel abandoned by their parents because they are working abroad. They look for support on internet forums where they write about their fate: "Hi Dad, I'm already 16. It has been a year since you left. Every day I smell the shirt you left behind because it didn't fit in your suitcase. It reminds me of you," as Maria quotes from a letter she wrote to her father who is in England working as a day laborer. Tomek, an 18-year-old, complains: "My mom went abroad when I was 13. She said she was going to Germany for a couple of months because she made so little in Poland. She couldn't even afford to buy clothes here. She is still there. That makes me sad."
When Malgorzata Greber decided to go abroad she wanted to spare her daughter such a fate. She was courageous enough to take her then 8-year-old daughter with her to England. In Poland, she was earning €600 ($706) a month; in England she earned almost four times that. Nevertheless, she soon felt lonely. She missed her home, her family and friends. The experience was also not as lucrative as she had hoped financially. "The job agencies lure people in with the promise of money but anyone considering emigrating should think long and hard about the cost of living in the countries they are going to. The only ones that manage to do well are the ones who go as couples," she tells DW.
No dignified life in Poland
After two-and-a-half years, Greber and her daughter returned to Poland, where she resumed work as a nurse. But that only went well for about six months. "The most important thing in my life was my daughter but I was constantly working 12 or 24-hour shifts; it was too stressful. And it was very hard to survive on my pay." Currently, Malgorzata has a good job as part of a three-year project at the Medical University of Lodz. When the project finishes, she plans to go back to her profession. Still, she wonders if she will ever be able to lead a dignified life in Poland with the little money she will earn as a nurse.
Malgorzata is an exception. Most nurses who go abroad never return. And if they do, they rarely seek employment in the state health-care system.
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Polish health-care system on life support
Teresa worked in hospitals in western Poland for 15 years. When her children were aged 14 and 15 she began traveling to Germany for work. At that point, her marriage was already over because her husband had found someone else in England, where he was working as a laborer. Her teenage children lived with her parents, and things were not going well there, either. Teresa decided to return home.
She was shocked when she went back to her old hospital. Most of her colleagues had left the country and were working in England, Germany or Norway. "Several wards were deserted; others were so full that patients were forced to stay in the hallways. We had so much work that I was constantly having to decide whether I should feed one patient or take another to the bathroom. And if, who first? It was humiliating, both for me and for the patients," says Teresa.
Now Teresa is caring for an elderly man near Kiel, in Germany. She receives €1,460 ($1,720) a month cash. But she says that after two months of work she needs two months off in Poland to regain her strength. "My contract says I have to work 40 hours a week. In reality, I am on call 24/7. I am utterly exhausted after two months." But Teresa has to put up with it; otherwise, she'll lose her job altogether. There are enough women from Romania and Ukraine who are willing to put up with such conditions, says Teresa.
The social costs of emigration
Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, some 20,000 trained nurses have left the country, mainly to work as caregivers. Today there are 280,000 nurses in Poland; only 42,000 of them are under the age of 40. The average age is 51. In 2015, Poland had 5.2 nurses and 2.3 doctors per 1,000 citizens (in Germany, the ratios are 13 and 4.1 to 1,000). The country's health-care system is chronically underfunded. It thus comes as no surprise that ever more personnel consider leaving. The social costs of that situation, however, are massive. In 2007, three years after Poland joined the EU, 1,300 children were forced to live in orphanages or foster families because their parents were working abroad. Currently, it is estimated that Poland has roughly 100,000 "Euro orphans," as well as a number of "Euro seniors" whose grown-up children work and live abroad.
Cash or private life
Teresa, who has been commuting between Poland and Germany for years, says that her lifestyle has come at a great cost and is the cause of much of her private grief. She says she can never regain the time she lost when her children were teenagers, arguably the time they needed her most. She adds there is nothing left of the social life she once had either. She sees friends less and less. Many old friendships have simply withered away. "It isn't a good life. Life is just passing me by," she says.
Yet the 55-year-old has no choice but to commute because she has to support her aging parents and pay for her children's education. She is not happy about it but she doesn't see how she could manage if she stayed in Poland.