In a case that should make most of the Western world blush in embarrassment for not-so-subtle collective racism, mysterious Maria, the little blonde girl found in a Roma encampment in Greece, has been matched via DNA testing to her biological parents, also a Roma couple living in Nikalaevo, Bulgaria.
The discovery came after the lawyer for the couple who was arrested for kidnapping Maria—Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, and her husband Hristos Salis, 39—chased down the woman who allegedly “gifted” the girl to his clients. According to the couple, a Bulgarian woman had come to them in 2009 with a seven-month-old child she could not care for, when she worked harvesting olives near the Fasala encampment. “DNA analysis proved that Sasha Ruseva is the biological mother of the girl named Maria,” confirmed the Bulgarian Interior Ministry Chief Commissioner Svetlozar Lazarov. He also named Atanas Rusev, 37, as Maria’s biological father.
Maria’s biological mother had returned to Bulgaria to take care of her other children, many of whom bear a striking resemblance to Maria. “I had no food for the child,” Ruseva told Bulgarian television. “This woman [Dimopoulou] offered to help me.”
Both women say that no money exchanged hands for the child, though prosecutors in both Greece and Bulgaria are investigating whether Maria was sold. That investigation will surely be compromised by the fact that most Roma nomads do not have bank accounts, and there would almost certainly be no definitive receipt to prove such a transaction. They will have to rely on interviews with neighbors in the community and try to ascertain whether Ruseva exhibited relative wealth during that period. The Bulgarian couple has nine children between the ages of two and 20, and they live in far worse conditions that Maria’s Greek family.
Dimopoulou and Stalis are still in custody in Greece, charged with kidnapping. Their lawyer has filed a petition for their release since Ruseva has admitted to giving the child away, and is not accusing the Greek Roma pair of stealing her. He says they want to keep Maria as their own child. “Now that they’re in prison there’s not much they can do. But provided what we said is borne out, that it was not an abduction, then logically they will be released from prison and they will be able to enter a proper process,” Costas Katsavos told reporters in Greece. “They truly and ardently want her back.”
Ruseva told Bulgarian reporters that she would like to take Maria back and care for her, or at least get to know her. “We all live in one room, me, my husband and all the children,” Ruseva said on Bulgarian television, describing how she cried when she saw her picture and felt remorse for leaving her in Greece in 2009.
Maria is still in a group home run by Smile of the Child in Athens, likely completely unaware of all that is happening in this highly publicized case. The case of errant mistaken identity is the third such case in week. Two blonde Roma children in Ireland were returned to their encampments after DNA proved that, despite their fair complexions, they were borne to darker-skinned parents. Unmentioned in much of the coverage about Maria’s case is the fact that Phenylketonuria—a recessive inherited disorder prohibiting the breakdown of phenylalanine (which helps produce melanin, the pigment responsible for skin and hair color)—has been found to be present in Roma communities in a number of studies. Infants with Phenylalanine often have lighter skin, hair and eyes than brothers and sisters, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It is unknown whether Maria and her siblings have the condition.
Now that Maria’s parents have been identified, Europe faces the question of how to stem the damage that the false accusations of baby stealing have caused—from racial profiling to outright persecution of the largest minority population on the continent.