GURKOVO BULGARIA – The Bulgarian Gypsy family of Maria, who wrongly was thought to be an abducted Western European child when she was recently found in Greece, wants her back but fears that social services will keep her.
“Give us Maria! We will take her home and share our bread with her,” her elder sister, Katia Ruseva, said Saturday in the central Bulgarian town of Gurkovo, where she lives with her husband and two children.
“We will not give her away for anything in the world,” the 20-year-old said.
After she was found living with a Roma couple in a camp in Greece on Oct. 16, Maria’s blond hair and green eyes were beamed on TV screens worldwide, making her a poster child for dozens of Western parents with missing children.
But on Friday, DNA testing confirmed her parents to be a Roma couple living in dire poverty in central Bulgaria.
The case revealed entrenched prejudice toward Gypsies, who also are known as Roma, and revived investigations into child trafficking.
But the girl’s sister, who also has hay-blond hair and freckles, insisted her parents did not sell Maria. “I used to care for my eight brothers and sisters when my parents worked in Greece. When they came back, Mom told me they had left a baby there. She did not have the money to pay for its passport,” Katia said.
Her parents, Sasha Ruseva and Atanas Rusev, disappeared from their home in the nearby town of Nikolaevo on Friday morning, together with three of their children.
Police said they are still in Bulgaria and not under arrest.
Maria’s mother had told Bulgarian media that she would take her daughter back if the DNA results were positive. But she is now under investigation for allegedly selling her girl in 2009, when Maria was 7 months old.
Nadka Chakarova, a neighbor of Katia’s in Gurkovo, choked back tears as she remembered how failure to register a newborn granddaughter in Greece had forced her to smuggle the baby over the border. “We could have sold her; there were candidates who approached us in the hospital in Heraklion offering a lot of money,” she said.
“The child does not have any ID or medical insurance now. I wanted to register her, but the municipality officials tell me to go to Greece,” Chakarova said. “With what money?”
The Rusev family’s neighbors claim that a TV network offered to put the family up in a flat in Sofia in exchange for an exclusive interview.
“Mom did not take any money to abandon Maria. We lived in the very same misery after her return from Greece,” Katia said.
The Roma ghetto in Nikolaevo was also on edge. The social services tried to take the Rusevs’ three youngest children away on Thursday, but neighbors prevented it, witnesses said.
“I took an ax. The other people bawled them out. Finally they assigned the kids to their elder sister Elena,” said Rumyana Tinkova, a 32-year-old neighbor.
The social services’ attempt to take the children has brought back bitter memories for the women in Nikolaevo.
“They took three of mine. They were ill. I signed some papers, although I can’t even read. I found out later that my girls were adopted in Germany!” said Tinkova, who has six more children. “What mother will agree to be separated from her children? But they stole two of mine. They argued that the living conditions here were bad and that I had no income,” said Anka Yordanova, another Roma mother, age 31.
While Maria’s case has revealed the extent of the stigma facing Gypsies, it has also raised some feeble hopes in Gurkovo and Nikolaevo.
“We have never seen people like you before in these slums. Show how we live — someone might send us clothes, blankets,” said Boyan Ivanov, 33, pointing at his sick mother and four children sleeping on the floor of a ramshackle house, like many others in Nikolaevo.