The immigrants in Spain whose money is destined for home

The immigrants in Spain whose money is destined for home

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No other country in Europe sees more remittances sent to other countries

On any day of the week, money exchange offices in Madrid throng with immigrants sending cash to relatives back home. Their remittances are often the biggest source of income for impoverished families in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. But just as a money transfer has a sender and a recipient, there are also two sides to the story behind the boom in international remittances.

Madrid, together with Catalonia, sends more money abroad than any other region in Spain, which is itself now the country that sends the most remittances in Europe due to the massive influx of migrants in recent years. In 2006, the last year for which figures are available, more than EUR 1.5 billion left the Madrid region as immigrant remittances, most of it going to Ecuador and Colombia. The latter country, 83,000 of whose nationals are living in Madrid, is the biggest recipient of money from immigrants here.

Remittances have changed lives, helping people pay for food, build homes and send their children to school. But the need to keep sending the cash has also exacted a toll on the family members who emigrated to Spain in order to support relatives back home.

"You think about the nice climate, your family and your friends. If I could be there now I would, but I've got to save," says Sandra Milena Zuleta, a 29-year-old Colombian dental assistant, working in Madrid.

Sandra arrived in the Spanish capital together with her aunt, 38-year-old Rocío Zuleta, five years ago from Medellín. They started working as cleaners, with Sandra earning around EUR 500 a month, approximately five times the amount she made selling kitchen appliances in Colombia. But life was not easy, despite what she had heard from migrants who had gone before her.

"In Medellín they say that everything is wonderful in Madrid, that it's easy to find work, but no one tells you about how lonely it is. Initially I became depressed, and I thought I wouldn't be able to go on," Sandra recalls.

She did struggle on, however, and today continues to send home between EUR 150 and EUR 200 a month after working 12- or 13-hour days. The recipient of the money is her 47-year-old mother Gladys Cano.

"Sandra is the one who keeps us alive," she says, seated in her small house in the Florencia district of Medellín. "It must be very hard for her there, but it's what she has to do. She is supporting this family."

Besides Sandra, whose father abandoned her and her mother when she was a teenager, seven other members of the family have emigrated to Spain and to the United States. The effects of their remittances and of relatives of other Florencia residents are evident across the district. Formerly one-storey houses are gaining new floors almost every month, new properties are being built and the crime rate has fallen well below the level it was during the drug wars a decade ago. Shops and bars now boast names such as Gran Vía and El Escorial. Not everyone, however, believes that emigrating is such a good thing.

"It seems very sad to me that you have to leave your country," notes Ricardo, Sandra's 25-year-old brother. "You end up in a different culture, you don't have your family around you and you don't have friends. People are always going to discriminate against you. For example, I've been told that immigrants earn less than Spaniards."

However, he admits that in Medellín there are "few opportunities" for work and that his sister's remittances do go some way to paying his way through college. But he is not awed by the migrants who return displaying all the trappings of newfound wealth.

"Everyone says that everything is going great, they never say anything is bad. When they come they show off, they're very ostentatious. Some have bought apartments and cars," Ricardo notes.

Álvaro, Gladys' 34-year-old brother, is equally realistic. "Unless you get involved in some dodgy business, people both here and there have to work just like anywhere else," he says. "I no longer believe in paradises."

[Copyright El Pais / JUANJO ROBLEDO 2008]

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