News / Europe

The Case of Baby Maria: Understanding Europe’s Roma

Bulgarian Romani, Sasha Ruseva (L), 35, holds her son Atanas, 2, as she speaks to media outside her house in the town of Nikolaevo, some 280km (173miles) east of Sofia October 24, 2013.
Bulgarian Romani, Sasha Ruseva (L), 35, holds her son Atanas, 2, as she speaks to media outside her house in the town of Nikolaevo, some 280km (173miles) east of Sofia October 24, 2013.
Cecily Hilleary
For more than a week now much of the global media has been fixated on “baby Maria,” a young blond girl who authorities seized from a Romani couple near Farsala in central Greece on the basis of her fair complexion.  The couple was arrested and charged with welfare fraud and child abduction.

DNA tests have proved that a Bulgarian Roma woman is the biological mother of the little girl in Greece the press dubbed as “the blond angel.”  The woman, Sasha Ruseva, says she gave birth to the baby while working in Greece four years ago and left her in the care of her Roma employers because she could not afford to keep her. 

Maria has been placed into the care of Smile of the Child, a children’s advocacy group with ties to several international centers for missing and exploited children.  No decision has been made about where she will eventually live. 

Christos Failadis, press counselor at the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C., says he is pleased that the mystery of “Maria” has been solved.  “It is a great moment for Greek police, investigators and prosecutors.” 

“Media have been mobilized by the Smile of the Child because Maria could have been a victim of child trafficking,” he said.

While the media has provided non-stop coverage of the case, much of it has tapped into negative stereotypes that have dogged the Roma for centuries—i.e., “Gypsies” as “thieves” and “child snatchers.”    

Sinan Gökçen, Media and Communications Officer for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) says If a crime has been committed in Greece, “those who committed it should be treated as individuals, not as representatives of their ethnicity. Such a case could arise in any racial, ethnic, religious or national group.” 

He says that Roma communities have already begun to feel backlash from irresponsible reporting.  Just this week, a group of “skinheads” in Novi Sad, Serbia, attempted to take a child away from his Roma parents because he was not “dark enough.”  

Roma culture knows no borders

So how is it that a baby born to a Bulgarian-Romani mother ended up in the care of a Romani couple in Greece? 

Ethel BrooksEthel Brooks
Ethel Brooks
Ethel Brooks
Those familiar with Roma culture say it has to do with Romani notions of kinship—it would be far better to place the child among other Roma than non-Roma. 

“Extended family is a very fluid notion,” says Dr. Ethel Brooks, Associate Professor in the Departments of Women's and Gender Studies and Sociology at Rutgers University.  Of Romani heritage herself, she is also an expert in Roma rights. 

She uses the anthropological term ‘fictive’ to describe family relationships--not just among the Roma, but across many other cultures. 

“It’s not necessarily a DNA tie, it’s not a blood tie,” Brooks said, “It’s this idea that you have a larger community of people who you think of as your cousins or your aunts or your uncles or grandparents.” 

But according to Brooks, there’s more to it than just kinship. 

Victims of history

“The history of Romani children in the nation state is not a nice one,” she says, citing the mystery of Aghia Varvara.  Between 1998 and 2002, more than 500 Albanian Roma children went missing from this state-run children’s institute where Roma street children were routinely housed.  Only four have been located.  The fate of the others is unknown.

“We need to find out what happened to them,” Brooks said. “And then there’s the larger historical context of Romani children being taken from their families and either placed in institutions that aren’t caring for them or in non-Roma families.”

According to Brooks, for many Roma the Holocaust — in which hundreds of thousands of Roma were exterminated — is a living memory, even if there are few survivors left.

And recent events such as France’s expulsion of a Roma schoolgirl and her family earlier this month, Sweden’s recent illegal attempts to include all Romani over the age of two in a national database and Italy’s plan five years ago to conduct mass fingerprinting of all Roma children. says Brooks. mean that it’s not hard to see why the baby “Maria” was left with her Romani employers rather than the Greek state.

“This woman, who had come from Bulgaria to Greece to pick olives to provide for her family, has a baby and then has to think, ‘What do I do now, with another mouth to feed?’  It makes perfect sense that she would find somebody in the community to take care of the baby,” said Brooks.

You May Like

Photogallery Belgian Security Measures Foreshadow New Normal for Europe

Rising threat of terrorism, disaffected Muslim populations and open borders, along with refugee, migrant crisis, are creating perfect storm for Europe, which some analysts fear continent is ill-suited to weather

Competing Claims of Responsibility for Mali Hotel Attack

Malian authorities ask public for help in identifying gunmen killed in attack, amid conflicting claims of responsibility from multiple jihadist groups active in the country

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs