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Moldova: Hard Work And Devotion Pay Off, Even In Europe's Poorest Country

Over the past decade, Moldova has earned the unwanted reputation as the economic basket case of Europe, with nearly three-quarters of the country's 4 million people living in poverty. Hundreds of thousands of Moldovans have fled a country once celebrated for its delicious wines in hopes of finding a better life abroad. Those who remain are left to eke out a living in often derelict, semi-deserted villages. Yet RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc, traveling in rural Moldova, has found a remarkable family who prove that hard work and devotion can still reap a handsome return -- even in the poorest country in Europe.

Chisinau, 23 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It's a rainy September morning in the Moldovan countryside and everything looks like business as usual in the Ungureanu home: Mom is baking bread, while the older kids look after their younger siblings -- toddlers and babies -- who stumble among dozens of chickens and a pair of piglets.

But for this family in the village of Capriana, some 20 kilometers southwest of the capital Chisinau, business is anything but usual. After all, Mom's got to bake no less than 10 loaves of bread at once to feed her kids.

That's because Maria Ungureanu, quite simply, feeds the largest family in Moldova: "I have 19 [children]. Seven daughters and 12 sons. My oldest daughter, born in 1983, is married, but the rest of them are at home with us."

Maria and her husband, a driver for a timber factory, are still young. Now almost 41, Maria, a tall, strong woman, had twins last year -- for the second time.
Moldova is a hugely rich land. It was once the breadbasket and wine cellar for both Romania -- of which it was part until the end of World War Two -- and the Soviet Union until the collapse of communism.

With her husband working long hours, Maria has always been the pillar of the household.

Not only has she given birth to 19 children, she has taken excellent care of them. All are healthy, well-fed, and well-bred kids.

Maria and her husband have been doing their best to raise a huge family in a country where taking proper care of just one child is a challenge.

For Maria, herself a kindergarten teacher, educating her kids is a top priority. But as she says, it hasn't been easy: "It is hard nowadays, but we are trying our best, because if we gave birth to these children, we must teach them something. We cannot bring them up in misery, hungry or dirty. This was the first year when we couldn't send them all to school from the very beginning, and we sent them one by one, but usually every year, they all went to school from the beginning, on 1 September. We have 12 kids in school this year, and our oldest daughter is in college."

One of the younger pupils in the family is Dorin: "My name is Dorin," she tells a reporter, adding that she is 8 years old.

"Are you going to school?"

"Yes," she responds.

Maria, surrounded by her children, has a contagious, optimistic smile -- something quite rare in today's Moldova.

There has been an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Moldovans from the country since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

They were driven away by instability, by armed conflict in 1992 with the separatist pro-Russian Transdniester region and by ever-growing poverty.

And yet, Moldova is a hugely rich land. It was once the breadbasket and wine cellar for both Romania -- of which it was part until the end of World War Two -- and the Soviet Union until the collapse of communism.

But now, Moldovans have turned into emigrants amid economic and political stagnation and widespread corruption.

Jana Costachi is a coordinator in Moldova for the International Labor Organization, part of the United Nations.

Costachi, who works on migration issues in Moldova, says the number of Moldovan emigrants has reached catastrophic proportions -- almost half the active population.

"The [government's] sociology and statistics department says some 280,000 people have left Moldova, and a study by the Soros Foundation and the International Labor Organization estimates the figure at some 300,000. Even if the number is only 300,000, that means almost 10 percent of the population and more than 40 percent of the active population," Costachi says.

Out of that number, some three-quarters come from the rural areas, which are home to the vast majority of Moldova's estimated 4 million inhabitants.

"I was telling you that Moldova is an agricultural country, so poverty is even more present in the rural areas," Costachi says. "Income from working the land are not those expected and this explains why 70 percent of the emigrants are from rural areas."

Maria admits that she and her husband have contemplated going abroad to earn more money. But then, they never could. She explains why: "These many children we have, each one of them needs both a mother and a father. We think about leaving many times, I sometimes feel like I would leave to work abroad, because need money a lot. But then we stop thinking about it, because if we didn't have so many children, but only one, it would also need a mother and a father."

She says that until she gave birth to her 17th child, no official paid attention to them.

Now, after the local media publicized their case, they have finally started getting a little help from the government: "Mrs. Ostapciuc [the speaker of Moldova's parliament] brought us a TV set, then they came to us from time to time and gave us either 1,000 or 2,000 lei [$83 or $166], then Mr. [President Vladimir] Voronin gave us a computer, after I gave birth to the last two children, a pair of twins, last year."

The state also began providing four monthly sacks of flour for the bread she bakes twice a week. It's certainly not enough, but it's better than nothing.

Recently, however, the matriarch of what might just be the largest family in all of Europe got an even more precious gift.

Her oldest girl gave birth to a baby girl -- and made Maria a grandmother.