Georgia: “My Heart is Like a Stone”

Women labour migrants endure years of domestic drudgery and loneliness to support the families left behind.

Georgia: “My Heart is Like a Stone”

Women labour migrants endure years of domestic drudgery and loneliness to support the families left behind.

A Georgian woman checks her phone inside a flat she shares with fellow migrant workers.
A Georgian woman checks her phone inside a flat she shares with fellow migrant workers. © Omar Marques/Getty Images

When Irma Kravishvili travelled from Georgia to Greece as an illegal immigrant, she feared she might die during the four-day journey,

After taking a bus through Turkey, she and another eight female passengers - none of whom had visas - were forced to hide in the luggage compartment of a coach. The only ventilation came from a small fan; if it malfunctioned, the women knew that they could die within minutes. 

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“It was shocking for me,” said Kravishvili, now 54, describing the 2006 journey for which she paid 2,800 euro. “I was on the edge of life and death. We were not told of the conditions and it was a surprise to us when, after crossing the Turkish border, they asked us to hide in this small, dark box supposed to be for luggage not for humans. 

“But I did not know that it would be less problematic than the difficulties that awaited me as a migrant.”

Most of Georgia’s labour migrants are women, working in low-paid domestic roles to provide for families left at home.  

“When 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, travelled without legal documents along perilous smuggling routes.

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

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

She continued, “When you see your child is hungry, is the mother a [real] mother if she does not sacrifice herself?”

Khachapuridze has not been back to Georgia since, and has managed to see her two sons only once, following Georgia’s visa liberalisation with the EU. 

According to Georgia's most recent census in 2014, 55 per cent of its labour migrants were women, with Greece one of the most popular destination countries. Most work in families as caretakers or housekeepers, cleaning the house and preparing food. Lack of knowledge of the local language prevents them from accessing better jobs. They usually save on outgoings by living in the same house where they work, or several migrants rent one apartment together.

Not having the right to stay and work in the country, employment is mostly illegal and therefore, by European standards, low paid. However, even this money is significantly more than can be easily earned in Georgia.

“I had no choice but to leave,” Kravishvili said. “We had many debts, a mortgage on a house, also two girls studying who needed my support. I had never been abroad before, had no idea what to expect.”

Emotional Challenges

In a country where unemployment runs at over 20 per cent, many families depend on the income of relatives living and working abroad. 

“My mum lived in Greece and she recommended that I 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 it was my dream to have a flat in the town. To give my children a better life I left them and came to Greece to raise strangers’ kids.”

Personal remittances have steadily increased year by year and in 2020 comprised 13.3 per cent of Georgia’s total GDP, according to World Bank data. 

This takes into account only remittances sent via official transfer channels but not money sent with acquaintances or brought by emigrants personally during visits. The actual share of remittances is estimated to be much higher.

Tinatin Zurabishvili is research director of CRRC-Georgia, an NGO collecting and analysing data on social, economic and political trends.
She said that there were knock-on social effects of women’s emigration, which often had consequences for female family members left behind.

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

“We do not have detailed and representative research data on this, but there is evidence, supported by qualitative data, that, often, migrant mothers’ oldest daughters take over their mothers’ household tasks, and also often look after their younger siblings.”

Historically, Zurabishvili continued, women were seen as secondary migrants followed their male relatives, rather than independent economic actors.  This was changing, she said. 

“Labour demand in the Western countries explicitly favoured female migrants, so the families in Georgia adjusted their strategies accordingly, with women, rather than men emigrating,” Zurabishvili concluded.

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

“There are always new needs and new problems,” Khachapuridze said. “I left seven and eight-year-old sons and now they are students and need more of my help. So the thought of going back is a distant one so far.”

Mzhavanadze now accepts that her future is in Greece. 

“I will stay here as long as I can support my sons, so they will not experience the same life I did,” she said, adding that her aim was to ensure her children had a quality of life so that they could “continue living 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 she arrived in Greece, Kravishvili learned of her husband’s sudden death. As a near-penniless undocumented migrant, she could not return.

“This is the great sadness of my life. I could not accompany my husband on his last journey,” she said. “Even now I blame myself for his death, I believe that if I had been in Georgia maybe I could have saved his life, maybe things would have gone differently, but who knows?”

Similarly, Khachapuridze could not attend the funerals of her brother and mother, who died after she left Georgia. 

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

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