Working in other people’s homes in the midst of a pandemic

Since arriving in Greece -27 years ago- Rodika has been working as a domestic worker. When COVID-19 appeared, she saw her working reality change.
Working in other people’s homes in the midst of a pandemic
Since arriving in Greece -27 years ago- Rodika has been working as a domestic worker. When COVID-19 appeared, she saw her working reality change.

Photographs: Nefeli Pitta
Edit: Iliana Papangeli
Translation: Gigi Papoulias

 

When the first lockdown in Greece was officially announced in March 2020, Rodika’s phone started ringing. She is a domestic worker and the families she worked for, called to ask her to stop coming to their homes to work, at least for a while.

Little was known at the time about the new virus and its transmission. Families, especially those with elderly people in the home, were afraid to come in contact with people from the outside. Rodika shared the same anxiety.

“They didn’t want any contact and neither did I. It was mutual. We didn’t know what would happen,” she told Solomon.

Three weeks later she contacted the same families again. Some told her hesitantly that they needed her help. She “gladly” returned to work. However, she was fearful of using public transportation and getting the virus. “Some days I felt like someone was always watching me.”

Fearing that she would catch the virus on crowded public transport, Rodika went to and from work with her car. Sometimes she texted the required message using the code for “helping someone in need” and other times she used the travel certificate given to her by some employers. “I had this fear that someone was always watching me, even though I was using the proper methods (text, etc) for going out.”

From Romania to Greece

Rodika came to Greece in 1994. She grew up in a village by the Danube River in Romania with her mother and two sisters. Her father spent long periods of time away from home. He was a worker and migrant in Arab countries. His last trip was to Iraq. When he returned to his family in Romania, he was ill and died within a few months.

“My mother was 42 years old. There were three of us girls: the eldest was 21, I was 19 and the youngest was 13. Things were rather difficult.”

Rodika came to Greece at the age of 23, newly married. After the fall of the socialist regime, many Romanians sought work in Greece. “During those years, most people left Romania. A lot of young Romanians came here.”

At the time, the only thing she knew about the Greek language was a song by Nana Mouskouri that she would hear occasionally at home, when she was a child.

When Rodika began to work at people’s houses, in order to communicate, she always had a dictionary with her. At her first job in Greece, she helped with the housework and took care of the family’s two young children. She left the job after six months when she began to better understand the language and realized that her employers were speaking badly about her in Greek.

Every two weeks, she talked to her family on the phone. She waited in line with other immigrant friends at OTE (telephone company), which would connect them to their homes in Romania.

The pandemic fosters fear

Rodika returned relatively soon to the employers she worked for before the pandemic. She feels fairly secure financially.

What changed in her daily work life however, was the mood and behavior of the people she worked for.  “People are under pressure. Older people are feeling very stressed, the fears are very strong.”

Although her services are, in many cases, valuable, both on a practical and psychological level, she has observed that now even the slightest annoyance is enough to create great tensions.

“When you go into someone’s home, you’re a part of that family whether you like it or not. “But now it’s a little harder because people are very stressed.”

In the houses where she works, Rodika always wears a mask. It’s something most families require – a measure of protection that she would take anyway.

Especially in households with elderly people, she often feels that she is being treated with suspicion since, in theory, she is the only one who could bring the virus into the home. “It’s strange because they want you, because they can’t get by on their own, but on the other hand they try to stigmatize you,” she says.

We asked her if she had ever asked families to wear a mask while she’s working in their homes.

“No, I never have. It has crossed my mind. Since they ask me, I could ask them too. I just never thought about it and never asked. I should have asked though.”

An “in-between” life

Before the lockdown, Rodika attended in-person computer classes in her neighborhood, went on excursions with her friends, and participated in events and dances held by the Romanian community in Athens.

In the past year, her life has been work and home. She hasn’t let it get the better of her though. She communicates with her family in Romania every day via messenger and enthusiastically attends an online psychology class.

For this interview and to photograph her, we went to her house twice. The TV was always on in the background, because, she says, it helps her learn new words in Greek and to correct what she has incorrectly learned. One of her plans is to receive training in interpreting Romanian and Greek.

When she first arrived in Greece with her husband at the time, they thought they’d work in Greece for two years, save some money and return to Romania.

Rodika has been in Greece for 27 years. “I feel like I’ve never gotten over the fact that I left my country,” she says.


The article is published in the context of Solomon’s in-depth series of reports on “Migrant workers in Greece in the time of COVID-19″ and is supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Office in Greece.

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