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Last Updated: Friday, 29 December 2006, 20:32 GMT
A tale of two European villages
By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Aguaviva and Peretu

When Romanians become citizens of the European Union on 1 January, they will find they are barred from working in most European countries.

The church in Aguaviva
Aguaviva was emptying before the mayor went on a recruitment drive
But more than two million Romanians, a tenth of the country's population, are already there, mainly in Spain and Italy.

Overall, they send home more than 3bn euros (2bn) per year.

This exodus is changing the face of local communities both in Romania, and in the countries where the settlers make their new home.

Working people

The Spanish village of Aguaviva is in the middle of nowhere, more than 100km from the nearest city. An imposing baroque church towers over tightly-knit rows of houses built in the local pale stone.

Map of Spain
But the food shop sells Romanian salami and cheese, and if you go into the local cafe you are as likely to hear Romanian as Spanish.

The young woman behind the bar, Elena Hetea, comes from a Romanian village. She's among some 100 Romanians who now call Aguaviva home.

"If only my parents were here, then it would really feel like home," Elena told me.

Her husband is working on a building-site close by and her sister also has a job in the village. After four years in the province of Teruel, one of the most sparsely populated regions in Europe, Elena mixes her Romanian with the odd Spanish word. She's the sort of immigrant they like around here.

Elena Hetea with husband and son, Danut
Elena Hetea and her husband dream of going home one day
"All the Romanians who came settled down without any problems," a local builder says.

"They're all working and buying houses. They're like us, normal people from a poor background."

He is less impressed with the Argentine immigrants who came to Aguaviva. "They have got everything here, more than us Spaniards, but they don't like to work as hard."


Immigration has become a hot topic in Aguaviva in the last few years.

Like thousands of rural communities across Spain, it was fast turning into a ghost-town, as the young went to work in the cities and the old passed away.

When the patient is dying, you have to try everything
Aguaviva mayor Luis Bricio
So in 2000, the mayor Luis Bricio - who's also a family doctor - tried something new and bold.

"When the patient is dying, you have to try everything," he said.

First, Luis Bricio went to Argentina, looking for families eager to flee the economic crisis there and willing to repopulate his village. He then went to Romania on a similar recruiting mission, offering cheap housing and guaranteed jobs.

Now the population of Aguaviva has grown to over 700 people, including 150 foreigners, mostly from Romania.

Many Argentines found life here too harsh and went elsewhere in Spain. Despite this unexpected setback, the mayor is convinced that controlled migration was the only way to save his village.

"It hasn't been easy, but it's been very positive for Aguaviva," Luis Bricio says.

"The local economy has doubled in size, property prices are 10 times higher, and some 100 jobs have been created because of the immigrants. Aguaviva was a declining village, but it now has a future."


The growth of the local economy is clear to see in an industrial hall on the outskirts of the village. Left empty for years, it's now buzzing to the sound of Aguaviva's first factory, manufacturing electric cables.

Donkey-drawn cart in Peretu
Carts drawn by donkeys are still common in Romanian villages
Set up by an Argentine, Marcelo Martinez, and his family, it employs a Romanian, an Argentine and soon, two locals.

The school is also a lively mix. Agustin comes from Argentina, Darius from Romania, Ana from Aguaviva.

Immigration and cultural diversity are nothing new in Spain. In school, the children speak both Spanish and Catalan. The headmaster, Pedro Cucalon, was born in the Netherlands. His family were among 1m Spaniards who fled poverty in the 1960s and only came back just before Spain joined the EU 20 years ago.

In a small place like Aguaviva, suspicion of the outsiders was inevitable. Some parents complained about children who "are not from here".

Romanian children can learn Spanish in three months
Teacher Pedro Cucalon
But when Pedro Cucalon asked where his students' grandparents were born, it turned out that only one family was originally from Aguaviva.

"You have to work at integration, it's not natural," he says. "But it's easier in children than their parents. Romanian children, for instance, can learn Spanish in three months because both languages have Latin roots."


In a school at the other end of Europe, many children can also speak fluent Spanish.

Map of Romania
But this is Peretu, a village in southern Romania, where children pay a much higher price for migration.

Of more than 700 students, one quarter are left in the care of grandparents or aunts. Their parents have gone to work as builders and cleaners in Spain, where they can earn several times more than at home.

"Their grades are lower after the parents leave, they don't study as hard," says English teacher Cristiana Motoane. "Alone at home, they do whatever they want to do."

Emigration also creates social and psychological divisions.

It's a divided village, with very poor families and very rich
Peretu teacher Cristiana Motoane
"Other children, whose parents stay here, are a little bit envious because the others are always wearing fashionable clothes," Ms Motoane explains.

"They are better dressed than us teachers, and they think they are superior. So it's a divided village, with very poor families and very rich."

Floarea Calea's family is now among the rich of Peretu - "the Spaniards," as they call them.

Her three sons are all working in Spain, but she's come back to do some home improvements - a brand new kitchen and bathroom, Spanish-style. Floarea's pride and joy is her flush toilet, in the brand new blue-tiled bathroom. "I no longer need to go to the privy at the bottom of the garden," she smiles.

Spanish politeness

The streets of Peretu aren't paved and the vehicle of choice here remains a cart drawn by horses or donkeys.

But many houses are brand new, painted in pastel colours to show that the money comes from Spain.

Privy in garden and tiled bathroom
Plumbing job: Floarea with her privy, and her blue-tiled bathroom
The mayor of Peretu, Ionel Olteanu, has noticed other changes in most of those who have worked abroad. "They come to pay their taxes," he says.

"After a year or so, they come to the town hall to pay, because they have seen that's how things work over there. But they also want the local officials to treat them more politely, just like they do in Spain. It's difficult for some, but we're starting to change too!"

The mayors of Peretu and Aguaviva have never met. But for both, migration is a mixed blessing rather than a curse. And for both, the outcome is uncertain.

In Spain, 60 other villages have started to invite immigrant families to settle, following the model of Aguaviva. In Peretu, one family has come back to set up a small shop. Others may follow across Romania, if EU subsidies make villages a better place to stay, as they did decades ago in Spain.

Back in Elena's cafe, her eight-year-old son Danut knows exactly why his family came to Aguaviva. "We came for more money," he says, peering shyly from under the bar.

He'd like to go back to his native country, but, he says in broken Romanian, "only now and then".

His parents still dream of returning to their village one day, but only when it becomes much more like Aguaviva.

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