What is it like to have a restaurant in Ireland and return to the native town in Moldova six times a year?
We met Tatiana Ciubuc and Igor Aftenii on Christmas in the old style, in January 2020. Except for the view over the window, with streets and houses characteristic to Ireland, nothing betrayed the fact that we are in the town of Letterkenny in Ireland.
A warm home, smelling of sarmale (cabbage rolls) and răcituri (meat jelly) on the plates, talking Romanian to the relatives around the table — everything was like in Moldova. Especially since the siblings, who also settled with their families in Ireland, filled the house with laughter and joy.
“Our family celebrates the old-style Christmas, with food, traditions and gifts — exactly like in Moldova. I don’t want our daughters and grandchildren to forget everything we took from home. Usually, my siblings with their families visit us during holidays because they know that Christmas here is like in childhood, at our mother’s home,” says Tatiana Ciubuc.
Her family raises chickens, makes sour borscht and cheese from the milk they buy from a nearby farm, and buys Moldovan home-made wine. Everything is like at home, in Moldova.
Tatiana Ciubuc and Igor Aftenii will soon “mature” in terms of living abroad, in Ireland, where they gave birth to their two children and started a successful business. Even though they are thousands of kilometers away, they are connected, virtually and in reality, with Ialoveni — their hometown.
An Italian restaurant “raised” by Moldovans in Ireland
For over a decade, they have an Italian restaurant in Ireland, which recently received the Travellers’ Choice award from Tripadvisor, an international platform, which places them in the top 10% of most recommended venues in the world. They received the award during the pandemic when their doors were closed because of restrictions and only the staff and clients picking their pre-ordered food could come in.
“At first we could not understand what that certificate was about. We couldn’t believe it. We were surprised. It doesn’t seem like we’re doing something that special. We just do everything with love because we like to serve in a way so people can have a good time and leave with memories for a lifetime,” says Igor.
There are six more staff members working at the restaurant, besides Igor and Tatiana.
When they resumed their work, which was allowed provided that protection measures are observed, they found themselves with a record number of requests for reservations, being forced to refuse some of them.
“Clients love our food, because we cook everything like at home. For example, we prepare the pasta ourselves. Even Italian guests admit that our pasta is better than the Italian one,” says Tatiana.
Six times a year — Ireland — Ialoveni — Ireland
Although they settled in Ireland, they come to Moldova at least six times a year. They become increasingly involved in the work of Ialoveni Hometown Association.
“We have always been eager to get involved and we have found ways to do this to help those who stay at home, as well as the municipality. We were very happy when Ialoveni Hometown Association was established, because we obtained a dialogue partner, together with the mayoralty. This way we could achieve more sustainable things for the town,” says Igor Aftenii.
Tatiana and Igor were the first ones to make a donation for the crowdfunding campaign conducted by Ialoveni Hometown Association in 2016.
“We purchased a tower truck that the town was missing for at-height works: tree pruning, installing lighting fixtures on pillars, at-height repair works. Aftenii family, by means of donating 1000 euros, inspired other natives to contribute to a more beautiful town,” says Sergiu Armasu, mayor of Ialoveni.
The Aftenii-Ciubuc spouses also initiated other projects: they purchased over 9,000 seeds and flower bulbs for the arrangement and greening of the city, they raised and donated funds for children with disabilities and those from vulnerable families.
Involvement of the diaspora, supported by temporary return scholarships, community twinning, and children camps
There are other tens, hundreds, and thousands of people like the Aftenii-Ciubucs. To channel their efforts, UNDP and Switzerland are running three natives’ involvement programs:
One of them is the local voluntary return program — “With love for HOME” scholarships. It provides financial support for the temporary return of diaspora representatives to their hometowns to transfer good practices, brings new ideas, experiences, and knowledge from the countries of destination.
Another program stimulates cooperation among mayoralties, by twinning foreign towns with Moldovan ones with the help of migrants.
The Aftenii-Ciubuc family was also involved in this process — the cooperation between Ialoveni and Letterkenny, Donegal County, Ireland.
“We’re at an advanced stage in the discussion with Letterkenny municipal councilors regarding bilateral cooperation with Ialoveni. We invited the mayor of the city to visit Ialoveni on its patron saint day. It is important for Irish people to come and see people and places. However, the status of an ex-Soviet country casts a shadow of distrust. In order to convince a foreigner to cooperate with your hometown, you have to prove your own fairness,” says Igor Aftenii.
Immediately after the travel ban is lifted, Aftenii family plans to resume the discussion with the mayoralty of the city where they reside and Ialoveni mayoralty.
The third program is “Summer camps with love for home”, which aims to strengthen emotional, cultural, and identity ties of the children of the second generation of emigrants with their/their parents’ hometown.
These involvement programs are available to the diaspora and natives from the partner communities of the UNDP-Switzerland “Migration and local Development” project.
During 2017–2018, scholarships for a temporary return were granted to 10 Moldovans from 8 communities. Also, two communities have twinned with towns from abroad, due to the involvement of the diaspora. Over 100 children benefited from attending free summer camps in their grandparents’ communities.
Text: Tatiana Solonari
Photos from Ireland: Ion Buga/UNDP Moldova