I was a pale Roma baby – it's always been a family joke that I was stolen8:38 pm - 10/26/2013
If we were to make a list of reasons as to why a child should be taken into care, "being blond" would probably not make the cut. This week, however, two Roma children in Athlone and Dublin were snatched from their families for exactly that reason. In the wake of the discovery of the "blonde angel" Maria, in a Roma neighbourhood in Greece, a witch-hunt has begun. The Roma are now considered child abductors until proven innocent, with police and social services ready to pounce on any Roma parents who dare to produce a blond child. The Dublin child has already been proved by DNA to belong to her parents.
Don't get me wrong, blond hair is somewhat a rarity among Roma populations. What is rarer, however, is the "pure blood" or tatcho Romany. Indeed, there is nothing more the Romany like to do than fight among themselves over who is the purest Gypsy, but one only needs to take a glance at Britain's Romany community to realise there has undoubtedly been a great deal of intermarriage. My genes would best be described as a melting pot – my mother is part Bulgarian Roma, part Romanichal (English Romany), and my dad is part Romanichal, part Irish Traveller – thus, it was hardly surprising when I was born a blue-eyed milk bottle.
The notion of the baby-snatching Gypsy is an old racist stereotype. Since I was born it has been a running joke within my family that I was stolen. My mum's engagement to a Roma man resulted in three considerably darker-skinned siblings. Among my Roma family I couldn't have stood out more, but lucky for me I can now hand down the "stolen baby" joke to my younger brother who was born with strikingly blond hair. In the current environment, however, I must ask just how funny this joke is. The implicit, and racist, message to emerge from this case is that blond hair belongs to the purer white race. While the case of little Maria in Greece seems distant, Ireland is just next door. Could my mum and stepdad be the next Roma parents to receive a knock at the door? Will my brother be the next blond Roma child to be carted off for DNA testing?
Since the case of Maria made headlines I have been adamant that it is not my place to decide the guilt or innocence of the Roma couple accused of her abduction. The alleged abductors and the Roma community in which they live have been adamant that Maria was informally adopted after being abandoned at birth. This is not entirely implausible – informal adoption and foster care is not unusual within the Romany population. I lived with my Roma grandmother for many years – there were no forms, no certificates and no paperwork, but I certainly hadn't been abducted. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that there is a reluctance to engage with state agencies when they have for so long oppressed our communities. What is more, how does the state expect a Roma family to engage with the bureaucracy of adoption when they are largely excluded from the education system?
It has become increasingly apparent that the criminal justice system in Greece is unlikely to consider the plausibility of informal adoption. The rise and influence of Golden Dawn, a far-right political party in Greece, should be a cause for concern for anyone who believes in a fair trial. Across Europe, as the Irish police have demonstrated, investigations have been fuelled by racist speculation alone. The domination of rightwing and overtly prejudiced attitudes towards Roma, not only in Greece but Europe wide, will arguably hold sway in any trial against Maria's alleged abductors. The depiction of Roma – as prolific child abductors, drug barons and inherently criminal – that has been circulated by the media does not reflect reality, but will almost certainly inform the outcome of Maria's story.
The plight of the 12 million Roma who live in Europe has largely been ignored since their arrival 1,500 years ago. The Roma have been victims of slavery, forced sterilisation, segregated education, ghettoisation and forced assimilation. An estimated 500,000, including members of my own family, were murdered at the hands of Nazi Germany – no reparations were paid, no apologises made, no mention in your children's history text books. Poverty is widespread – millions of families are living in ghettos without sanitation or even running water. For me this raises an important question: why now, after centuries of suffering and oppression, are the Roma finally worth column inches?
If the case of Maria has taught us anything, it's that government agencies and the media are fundamentally racist. Yet for every thousand racists there is a commentator from the left condemning the handling and coverage of Maria's alleged abduction. I will by no means shun their support but I will question their intentions. Almost oppressive as the act of racism itself is the fact that the Romany voice has gone mostly unheard since Maria hit the headlines. Instead, Maria has become a hot topic for the non-Romany commentators who have dominated the defence of the Roma. The oppression of Europe's Romany has lasted thousands of years and the case of Maria is merely the tip of the iceberg. I ask, therefore, will the commentators remain so vocal when Maria is no longer newsworthy but the racism lives on?
• Since this article was written, DNA tests have established that the Bulgarian Roma couple Sasha Ruseva and Atanas Rusev are the biological parents of the child Maria