“The blonde angel,” the Greek media christened her: this little girl “discovered” during a drug-and-weapons raid in the Roma settlement near Farsala in central Greece. Within days, the story broke in every major European newspaper. Who was this child? She looked, we were repeatedly informed, nothing like the couple who were raising her, or any of their other children: she was white-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed. Police removed her from her home and took her to a hospital. Further investigation revealed that the couple owned multiple forged identity documents, including birth certificates for fourteen children, ten of whom could not be accounted for. According to the recorded birthdates, the woman had given birth to six children in less than ten months. In hospital, a DNA test proved that the blonde, blue-eyed child was not biologically related to the couple.
In another life, before I decided to devote myself to writing fiction, I once conducted fieldwork in Gypsy* communities in France. Different country, yes, but I recognised the key elements of the setting in which the child was found: the squalour, immediately highlighted in most newspaper reports; the shifting stories of the “suspects” when confronted by the authorities; the frustrations of the Roma community when their explanations were ignored or dismissed. At first, I told myself I was reading too much into these newspaper reports, that surely a reputable newspaper like the Guardian could not be guilty of the journalistic crimes I was seeing. But then other people began to point them out, and bolstered by this corroboration, I allowed myself to feel the outrage I’d suppressed in the beginning.
Where to begin? First with the reporting of even the “facts”: when the child was found, the authorities declared her to be about four years old. Then the medical experts who examined her adjusted her age to “five or six,” which correction was widely reported. Though it was reported with no commentary, the accusation did not need to be spelled out: the child’s growth had been stunted by malnourishment. Reports described the child as “filthy and terrified” when she was found, unable to communicate in Greek, speaking only a few words of Romany. Was there anything surprising, anything unusual about the filth and the terror? Marginalised, economically depressed communities often live in “filthy” conditions. And what child of four, or five or six, or even ten, would not be terrified by police breaking into her home and questioning her parents, let alone removing her to a hospital? Yet who could read the words “filthy and terrified” and not picture a feral creature, grunting and snarling, prowling the hovel on all fours and sleeping on the floor?
In hospital, and then in the charity home to which she was subsequently taken, the child was said to be “in shock and very reluctant to even smile.” Less than a week after she was removed from the Gypsy camp, a psychologist told journalists: “It has taken time for her to gain our trust as it will take time for her to adapt to her new surroundings.” Picture this: a small girl taken from the only home she’s ever known, hospitalised, surrounded by policemen and doctors, subjected to blood tests and other procedures. I am the mother of a four-year-old child, who, when adapting to “new surroundings” or trusting new people is required — and I am talking about things like playgroups and gymnastics classes, not invasive medical tests without the support of anyone she has ever known — takes two or three months. Not days, months.
We were told that the police had hired experts to try to determine the child’s ethnic origins. But who were these experts? In the Independent — the Independent! — I read this incredible sentence, printed without irony or editorial commentary: “Anthropologists are due to examine her features in an attempt to discover where she was born.” Had we all been spirited back to the nineteenth century, to the era of racial classification and pen-and-ink drawings of Negroids and Mongoloids? Before the anthropologists could complete their mysterious task, newspapers were already speculating on the child’s origins. Was she Scandinavian? East European? The Swedish newspaper Expressen claimed that Greek authorities had received a “tip-off” from Sweden.
In custody, the child’s adoptive parents — let us henceforth call them that, although no newspaper has yet gone that far — said they’d found her wrapped in a blanket outside a supermarket. Then they said the child’s birth mother had given her to them to raise. They’d adopted her, they said, sure, not legally, but “in a nice way.” They hadn’t stolen her or bought her. They’d raised her as their own. But all this, too, was familiar to me: the distrust of authority, the bungled attempts to feed the authorities exactly what they wanted to hear, even if what they wanted to hear could only be guessed at. But you don’t need to have done fieldwork with Gypsies to recognise this pattern, surely: again, it is common all over the world in groups with historically troubled relationships with authority. And there is no relationship more troubled than that between Gypsy communities and European governments: only scratch the surface, and you will find genocide, expulsions, deportations, towns from which Gypsies are banned, apartheid-style laws limiting their freedom of movement, schools refusing to educate their children. Yet no newspaper I read shied away from leaping to conclusions. The phrases “child smuggling” and “child trafficking” popped up in article after article. Less than a week after the girl was taken from the Gypsy camp, the Guardian was publicising a worldwide appeal to “identify” her — there was little question, in other words, that her adoptive parents were lying, and that she had been abducted and trafficked. In just a few days, the charity in charge of the appeal had received over 10,000 phone calls and e-mails from around the world, most of them from families of missing children.
Enterprising journalists approached the parents of high-profile missing children for their opinions: Gerry and Kate McCann, who said the discovery of this child gave them hope; and the mother of Ben Needham, who disappeared on the Greek island of Kos in 1991, when he was twenty-one months old. “The authorities in Greece always told us, ‘Gypsies don’t steal babies,’” said Kerry Needham. “Now we know they do.”
Now we know they do. There’s a pithy phrase. I want to carry it around in my pocket, pull it out as shorthand for the way prejudice works, the way I pull out “Say You’re One Of Them” to summarise the horror of tribalism. But I don’t hate Kerry Needham for thinking it, or for grasping at the shred of cruel hope that was dangled before her nose by vulturous journalists. The stereotype of the baby-stealing Gypsy has been with us since the Middle Ages; why would I expect a woman who has been grieving a lost child for twenty-two years to be able to resist it when the Guardian cannot?
This week, police in Ireland seized two blonde children from Roma parents. Neighbours had tipped off police about both these families after watching TV reports about the Greek case. Their parents produced birth certificates, but the police were “not satisfied” with these. The children — a seven-year-old girl and a two–year-old boy — were kept overnight, tested and found to be the biological offspring of the parents they’d been taken from. Newspapers reported their return, but mentioned no attempt to compensate the parents for what they’d been through, no apology, let alone damages. On the Greek Island of Lesvos, a second Roma couple was arrested on suspicion of having abducted a child they claimed was theirs.
Of course, there’s another reason I’ve been watching these cases unfold with my heart in my mouth, and that reason has to do not with a past life but with the life I’m living now. I am the brown-skinned mother of fair-skinned, blue-eyed children. For me to claim that I’m subject to the prejudice that Gypsies encounter every day in Europe would be an affront — I am highly educated, relatively affluent, and visibly middle-class. But these facts provide limited comfort, because I know that under the wrong circumstances — an official who takes a dislike to me for reasons of his or her own, a suspicious-looking misstep on my part — facts are easy to ignore. I’ve never had to travel alone with my daughters, but even when my white husband is with me, we carry their birth certificates. Just in case, we tell ourselves. You never know.
All my friends know this story: years ago, my husband and I and a friend of ours lost our way in Sevilla. We stopped on a street corner to consult maps, but because I am terrible at map reading, I decided to let my husband and our friend handle it while I took some pictures. Reaching into my husband’s backpack, I began to rummage around for our camera when a woman passing us gasped and tapped my husband on the shoulder. Señor! she hissed. Look! Watch out! She pointed at me. I stood there with the camera in my hand, my cheeks burning. The moment she’d touched my husband — even before she’d spoken — I had guessed what she was thinking. I was wearing a new J.Crew jacket, but prejudice, by definition, blinds you to the evidence; you’ve already judged before you can see it. Oh, my husband said, This is my wife. A moment of silence, then immense embarrassment on the woman’s part. Awkward apologies. Equally awkward, reluctant attempts to exonerate her.
Of course anyone who has travelled in any major European city has been warned about “the Gypsies,” and most have encountered them in less-than-ideal circumstances: the pickpockets, the beggars, the touts, the scam artists. But this is the only kind of slippery slope I am convinced exists, this slope from being the victim of a pickpocket once in the Parisian Métro to automatically suspecting a brown-skinned person rummaging through a white person’s backpack of thievery, and further down, to concluding based on one unsubstantiated case, Now we know they do.
The biological parents of the “blonde angel” — so much mythologising in just that nickname, such heavy hinting at a battle between Good and Evil, white and black! — have now been identified. They, too, are Gypsies, from Bulgaria. The mother admits to voluntarily handing her baby over to the couple in Greece; whether she did so for money or not remains unclear. All of this — the parents’ identity, their origin and location, the mother’s relinquishing of the child — exactly matches what the Roma community of Farsala has been insisting all along, even as the police ignored them in favour of leads in the US and France and Poland and Sweden. Birth records confirm that the child was born in January 2009, making her indeed four years old, not a malnourished five or six, “expert” conclusions notwithstanding. Various newspapers have now acknowledged two factors that could have shed light on this case from the beginning: 1) that illegal adoptions are not rare in Greece; and 2) that the forged birth certificates may be evidence of a relatively benign crime far more common than child trafficking along the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder in developed countries: welfare fraud.
And after all this, what is to become of the child? She is unlikely to be returned to either set of parents, biological or adoptive. She will be taken into foster care, and probably, given the publicity her case has received, adopted, this time legally. I think about her in that charity home, barely able to communicate with most of the people around her. I wonder how much she understands about what’s happening, whether she realises she may never see her parents and siblings again, what it means that the psychologists think they’ve gained her “trust.” I wonder, most of all, how much she will remember in ten, twenty, thirty years — how much or how little, because who we are as adults depends so much on what we remember, and because she is young enough, at four, to become anyone at all.
*I use the word “Gypsy” because “Roma,” while favoured nowadays, does not include all European Gypsy communities.
[Images: Maria; Amala, from http://www.learninginfo.org/amala-kamala.htm; “Suspiciously Distrustful,” by Benon Lutaaya; “Indigenous Races of the Earth” (1857), by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Gliddon; Madeleine McCann; Ben Needham; untitled photo by Crazybananas on flickr; “The Thieving Gypsy Bastards”; “Disintegration — Childhood Memory,” by Nikki Rosato.]