Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – Klara Karybaeva is 56 years old and has three daughters, all in their early thirties.
They are all single mothers who receive no additional support from their respective children’s fathers.
In total, Karybaeva has seven grandchildren.
Two of Karybaeva’s daughters, Anara and Munara, moved to neighbouring Kazakhstan to work as a seamstress and a cook, respectively.
Her third daughter, Bakhtygul, works in Turkey as a domestic helper.
“They have been working outside of the country for seven to eight years already,” Karybaeva tells Al Jazeera.
“They come to Kyrgyzstan every three months for a visa run, and the children don’t leave the house even for a second when they are here,” she adds.
The youngest child, age three, begs to go to Kazakhstan all alone by taxi “to see his mummy” in her absence.
Karybaeva doesn’t have a pension as she is two years below the qualifying age, nor does she receive any social welfare.
In order to afford to raise the children, she works at the local market, however the family is still mainly dependent on the money sent home from her daughters.
The last remittance they sent was about KGS 10,000, or some $150, with more than half of that going towards rent.
It is difficult to raise children without additional support, Karybaeva says.
“I was very nervous when they first left, and afraid of not being able to take care of them,” she says. “As I have high blood pressure, my doctor always tells me to give the children back to their parents, but I can’t as there’s no one to look after them.”
Remittance is common in Kyrgyzstan, accounting for up to 32 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, mostly provided by migrant labour workers in Russia.
In 2017, $1.5bn was remitted in only eight months, according to the National Bank of the Kyrgyz Republic.
‘You work for 12 hours to get nothing’
A recent report by Resource Centre for Elderly, a prominent NGO in Bishkek, says that migration in Kyrgyzstan is characterised by a “stable outflow of population”, with an estimated 710,000 citizens currently living abroad as labour migrants; of these, 86.8 percent of them are in Russia and 4.2 percent in neighbouring Kazakhstan.
Given that such a large share of the Kyrgyz population chooses to migrate, there are thousands of children left behind across the country.
My maximum salary in Kyrgyzstan would be $200. There's nothing to do here - you have to work for 12 hours to get nothing.
Many parents aren’t able to take their family with them because they fear difficulties in their countries of destination and do not have the financial means to cover living costs for them.
For 32-year-old Elvira Baysakova, to earn a living outside of the country is the only option. She has four children and has been working in Moscow for two years.
Although she initially moved with her husband, they divorced because he was physically abusing her.
Every time she goes to Russia, she leaves her children with her mother. Her salary is barely enough to pay for an apartment in Moscow but it’s more than she could earn if she stayed.
“My maximum salary in Kyrgyzstan would be $200,” she says. “There’s nothing to do here – you have to work for 12 hours to get nothing.”
Abandoning children in orphanages
Poverty drives people to move from their home country, even if it means leaving their children to relatives, neighbours or even social institutions.
Social workers from several NGOs in Bishkek confirmed that there has been an increase in children left at orphanages.
I often receive messages from single mothers who want to find a suitable orphanage for their children while they go abroad.
“There are 13,500 children living in orphanages in Kyrgyzstan, however 94 percent of them have at least one living parent.
“I often receive messages from single mothers who want to find a suitable orphanage for their children while they go abroad,” says Igor Belyaev, an activist who founded Rights for Children at Orphanages.
Belyaev was raised in an orphanage himself.
“I understand the system from within. I know how it works,” he says.
He started the NGO in 2012 and since then has collaborated with 118 orphanages across the country, providing psychological support and financial help for children.
Belyaev is active on social media to attract people’s attention to this problem, although he focuses on “positive things” and hopeful posts.
He visits orphanages every week, bringing food, presents, and clothing to the institutions that don’t receive regular financial aid from the government.
One of the orphanages he patrons accepts children with neurological disabilities from across the country.
An hour’s drive from Bishkek, it is isolated and direly in need of support, however it still treats 230 children and only 10 percent of them have lost both parents.
The challenges of disability are heightened when parents receive low income and are forced to work abroad.
The parents’ fear of stigma, as well as their inability to care for children with such special needs, drives the majority of these abandonments.
Despite the fact that we have the most caring staff here, nothing can replace a parent's love.
Feruza Kenzhetaeva’s father left her here last year. Suffering from cerebral palsy, regular epileptic seizures and moderate retardation, her family was not prepared to care for her adequately.
She had been badly neglected, arriving malnourished and dirty, in threadbare clothes with her only vocabulary being expletives.
Svetlana Takyrbashova, the head of the institution, begs parents to come visit their children, often to no avail.
“It makes the children so happy when someone comes to see them – in the end they understand everything. Despite the fact that we have the most caring staff here, nothing can replace a parent’s love,” she insists.