We are travelling back from Argentina as a whole family after a few weeks on the road.
First, I was in Colombia at the World Conference of Science Journalists to moderate a panel on why the youngest children should be on every journalist’s radar. There were some stellar journalists as speakers, including NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee who spoke at length about the importance of caregivers’ mental health in influencing how well (or badly) children do (I will share a link to the panel once it is up online).
I travelled alone with my son León, who — at five months — was the youngest at the conference. It was an adventurous trip; I was lucky to see friends who live in Colombia and to experience life on the road with a baby, something I had never done solo with Lorenzo. The most touching moment was when Colombian journalist Yuliana Saavedra approached me to say that she was going to bring her baby along the following day to the conference because my being there with León had inspired her (she also interviewed me in Spanish about this newsletter).
Then I was in Argentina for the first time since the pandemic. A large chunk of our family lives there, but I had too much work on to be able to relax, have fun and enjoy my family and friends.
Now that we get to Ezeiza, as the international airport in Buenos Aires is known, I feel an onslaught of so many feelings. The first is a flashback to the last time I left Buenos Aires, on 29 February 2020. We were hearing about a bout of coronavirus in China, but it felt remote. By the time we landed in Milan on 1 March 2020, the Lombardy province of Italy was about to be declared a red zone. The rest is history. All of our lives were uprooted, changed by months of uncertainty and alarmist headlines, and many of us were separated from our families and friends for a long period of time.
But in Ezeiza that 29 of February, I had no idea what was coming. I was probably fantasising about our next trip — just like I catch myself doing this time around, in Ezeiza, about to head back home to Athens as a family of four.
Looking for better perspectives
Already as we are checking in for our Buenos Aires-Athens trip, via Istanbul, I am surprised by how many more infants there are on the flight — most even younger than León. How strange, I think to myself. In all the trips I have had so far, León has been an exception.
As we get to the gate, I am surprised again. Some are young women travelling alone with their newborns. There are a few families with older children too. Then all of a sudden something clicks. These are Russian families who have come to Argentina to give birth and get access to Argentine nationality, now heading back home to Russia with their newborns.
I had read about this: Argentine migration authorities had launched an investigation to assess why so many Russian women in their final weeks of pregnancy were landing in Argentina allegedly as tourists.
I had also seen the beautiful pictures that Erica Canepa, an Italian photojournalist who works in Buenos Aires, and a friend, had taken for the Wall Street Journal.
So I am standing in the line, holding León, making sure that Lorenzo does not run away. It is almost midnight. I am exhausted but the impulse is too strong; I start scrolling for the news stories I had seen.
“Nacho,” I say. “This is true, they are on our flight, it is the story I was reading about.”
He tells me to calm down — after all we have bigger fish to fry, with this long flight ahead with two children. I tell him that I can’t calm down, I am in the middle of a story that I have read about, and it is normal for me to get excited. A story like this is at the heart of what I report on, and suddenly I am on a 16-hour flight to Istanbul with some eight Russian newborns with their newly issued Argentine passports. How could the journalist in me let go of a situation like this?
A way out of Russia
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Argentine immigration authorities noticed flights packed with dozens of pregnant Russians. Nearly 11,000 Russian women have arrived over the past year. It is unclear how many were pregnant, though airlines and hospital staff had noticed an increasing number of pregnant women from Russia.
While some go to Argentina to settle down and escape a Russia waging war and economic uncertainty, local officials believe many of the other recent Russian arrivals are mainly focused on receiving passports — for their children and for themselves.
Immigration laws allow Russians to enter Argentina without a visa as tourists for 90 days. Children born on Argentinian soil benefit from automatic citizenship, and it’s then easier for the parents to obtain residency permits and, after a couple of years, citizenship too. Right now, an Argentinian passport allows entry to 171 countries without a visa, while a Russian passport only allows visa-free travel to 87 countries.
Birth tourism is not a new thing, but this flow from Russia to Argentina is a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and of more visa requirements for Russians. (And yes, this is birth tourism because mostly these families have choices and are not obliged to escape their country, as many pregnant Ukrainians have had to do.)
There has been a flourishing of contracting agencies like RuArgentina, which serves middle class Russians willing to pay up to $15,000 for advice on giving birth and settling in Argentina — some are calling it a mafia. But many families come on their own accord, looking for information via apps such as Telegram, as the Wall Street Journal recounts.
So many questions to ask
The flight to Istanbul, besides being the cheapest to Europe at the moment, is also the one that lands in a country that still has flight connections to Russia and requires no visa. So, now that I look closer, it is a no-brainer why we are all sitting together today.
We board the flight. A woman with her newborn is just two seats away from me. She is tall, her long blonde hair up in a high ponytail, and is wearing a pink t-shirt and comfortable joggers. Nacho and Lorenzo are in the row behind her, while her husband and older son are in the row behind me. I consider telling her we can switch places, as an opening to ask her more questions.
But then something hits me. I have been complaining for two weeks that I could never have a break. I have a seat with a bassinet (a luxury) on this long overnight flight. Maybe I can catch up on some sleep, or even read a little bit. And there I am, wanting to turn this flight into yet another assignment…
But how do you stop being a journalist? When do you take a break? How do you stop looking around you and asking questions?
On the flight, exhaustion overcomes me. León falls asleep in my lap, and me with him. When I wake up, I want more sleep. The woman with the ponytail is also up, breastfeeding her one-month-old baby girl, just as I am doing with León. I can hear more infants waking up every now and then throughout the plane, and I meet some as I stroll around with León in my arms.
I never get around to asking the woman anything, but these are the questions I have:
- How did you find out about Argentina as a possible country to give birth in?
- Why did you decide to try it out?
- How much did you pay, and to whom?
- How was the stay for you?
- How did your birth experience go?
- Did you miss your extended family, a specific food, your language?
- How are you feeling now?
- Is your baby sleeping and feeding enough?
- What will you do once you are back in Russia?
The best for our kids
I have asked these questions many times before, when reporting on migrant families and their newborns in Europe. I spoke to Afghan mothers of newborns in Athens and in the refugee camp in Lesbos, to pregnant women from Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo just arrived in Europe.
Their stories are different, but their reasons for their difficult, expensive, sometimes life-dangerous trips are similar: creating better opportunities for their children.
We all do it on a daily basis. Stretching our budget for an extra afternoon class, or to send our children to the school of our dreams. These Russian families did it for a passport that may keep their boys away from military duty. We may not feel sympathy for Russia at the moment, but a lot of families are also stuck with a war-mongering autocrat. There are families that do it to escape violence or to survive famine and poverty.
It is the same principle. We just give it different names according to the person’s skin colour, passport, political beliefs and purchasing power.
When we land in Istanbul, all excited that the longest leg of the trip was over, I smile at the woman in the ponytail, and manage to say one thing only: Good luck.
What I’ve been reading
The average person might only hear about surrogate pregnancies through celebrity news — think Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, and more — but there is such a thing as “the world’s leading low-cost surrogacy agency”. An investigation by media on four continents of this agency found evidence of mistreatment of the women who were recruited as surrogates, mainly in the Global South, with first-hand testimony from women themselves.
The Baby Broker Project, funded by the Pulitzer Center, involved journalists from Animal Politico, an independent media in Mexico, iFact, an online investigative media outlet in Georgia, the national newspaper The Observer in the UK, and Eesti Päevaleht, a daily in Estonia (and freelance reporters from Kenya and Cambodia). The investigation was inspired by another award-winning investigation into surrogacy in Kenya, which also managed to get first-hand accounts from women recruited as surrogates and then mistreated, which I wrote about last year.
What I’ve been listening to
Could you imagine being filmed for as long as you could remember? In the US, Whitney Bjerken can. At one point, she had 1.5 million people watching her grow up as a child content creator, with her family posting videos of her singing and doing gymnastics on YouTube.
In an episode called Millions of People Watched Her Grow Up Online. What Did It Cost Her? from the First Person podcast from the New York Times, journalist Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Bjerken, now 18, and they delve into what a “viral childhood” was like.
What I’ve been watching
Lorenzo has a fever (again!), so our projector came out again. I got around to watch Finding Nemo for the first time in years. The Disney film, which came out 20 years ago (!!), tells the story of a father, a clown fish, looking for his son that has been picked up by a diver. (We all know the story, right?) I loved rewatching it, this time as a parent, and reflecting on how pointless it is sometimes that we try to protect our children because of our own fears.
Who’s been inspiring me
This video of a baby reading along with his dad was posted online by an early childhood expert based in the US. Seeing the baby repeating some of the rhyming sounds of the Llama Llama Red Pajama book will put a smile on your face. (And yes, as some on Twitter point out, babies start recognising sounds in utero, as I have written about, so it is worth reading to them well before!)
With love and care,
📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Nabeelah Shabbir, from Amsterdam.