independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Roma couple are 'Maria' parents

Eleftheria Dimopoulou and Christos Salis claim they adopted "Maria"

DNA tests have confirmed that a Bulgarian Roma couple are the parents of a mysterious girl in Greece known as Maria, authorities said.

Genetic profiles of Sasha Ruseva and her husband Atanas matched that of the girl, said Svetlozar Lazarov, a Bulgarian interior ministry official.

Ruseva, 35, has said she gave birth to a baby girl four years ago in Greece while working as an olive picker, but gave the child away because she was too poor to care for her.

Maria has been in temporary care since last week after authorities raided a Roma settlement in central Greece and later discovered that girl was not the child of a Greek Roma couple she was living with.

The Greek couple, Christos Salis, 39, and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, have been arrested and charged for allegedly abducting Maria, as well as document fraud.

A lawyer said they plan to seek legal custody of the fair-haired girl.

The couple have told authorities they received Maria after an informal adoption.

Under Greek law, child abduction charges can include cases where a minor is voluntarily given away by its parents outside the legal adoption process.

"Now that they're in prison there's not much they can do," their lawyer, Costas Katsavos, said.

"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 (adoption) process. They truly and ardently want her back."

Costas Yannopoulos, director of the Greek children's charity Smile of the Child, which has been looking after the girl, had no comment on her fate, saying only: "We are dealing with the humanitarian side of this issue, looking after a young girl."

Maria's case has drawn global attention, playing on the possibility of children being stolen from their parents or sold by them. But its handling by media and authorities has raised concerns of racism toward the European Union's estimated six million Roma - a minority long marginalised in most of the continent.

The Bulgarian prosecutor's office and Greek authorities are "seeking clarification on whether the mother agreed to sell the child", Bulgaria's interior ministry said.

Ruseva has had two more children since giving birth to Maria. They live in a dilapidated, mud-floored house outside the remote Bulgarian village of Nikolaevo, 175 miles east of the capital, Sofia.

Another daughter, Minka Ruseva, 14, said she saw pictures of Maria on TV and thought she was her sister.

"I like her very much, she looks very much like me and I want her back home. We will take care of her and I can help my mother," she said.

Stoyan Todorov, a neighbour of the Rusevs', complained of the hardships that he and his family face every day. He said Bulgarian authorities do not care about helping the Roma and come "only on the eve of elections, hoping to get our votes".

"Look how we are living in total misery," he said. "Years ago, a man was murdered in our neighbourhood and nobody paid attention. Now there are crowds of concerned people here because of one girl."

As he spoke, he pointed at the scores of reporters from across Europe who had descended on the remote area.

"The truth is that we do not have the money to look after our kids," Mr Todorov said.

Greek officials, fearing that Maria's 2009 birth record contained false information, have ordered a nationwide check of all Greek birth records in the last six years to ferret out welfare fraud or other irregularities.

The Greek Roma couple's lawyer, Costas Katsavos, said: "We are very, very happy with this outcome, because we have proved what we said from the outset ... the adoption, as it happened, was not of a legal nature but it was not abduction.

"Now, as the birth mother has been found, we will ask to gain - through legitimate processes - custody of little Maria, whom the family truly sees as its own child."

At the Roma camp in Farsala, central Greece, where Maria was found, residents said the couple had been vindicated.

"They are saying the woman stole the girl. She didn't steal her. The Bulgarian gave the child to her ... we've had Maria here for five years," neighbour Christina Pavlos said.

Press Association

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