Roy Exum: The Blonde Girl Called Maria

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I have got far too many things to do and more demands on my time to worry about a four-year-old blue-eyed blonde girl who was just discovered in a camp of gypsies in central Greece but I catch myself praying for the one they call “Maria” two of three times a day. She was discovered last week when a prosecutor, accompanying local police on a raid, found the child sticking out “like a fly in a cup of milk.”

That is the very description a Greek detective used back in 1995 when a blonde boy was spotted in another gypsy camp, triggering hopes that maybe Ben Needham had been found after he had gone missing at age 21 months some four years before while his family was on vacation in Greece. Trafficking of children is a world-wide horror and, while the Needham boy would be 21 years old today, the mysterious Maria has given his family and many others all across the globe new hope.

Back in 1995, the Needham case went cold when a gypsy family brought a different child to the police station for questioning. When police returned to the camp, the blonde boy was gone but Maria has been seized by authorities and, after being secreted away in a hospital over the weekend, the girl will be placed in the hands of a reputable agency as the spellbinding case continues.

I cannot describe my fascination with the small girl, other than my feelings are the same as parents the world over. And obviously the blonde girl is not the birth daughter of the couple who had her, their dark complexions so different that the prosecutor accompanying the police immediately called foul.

The gypsies, or Roma as they are called, are nomads who live on the outskirts of some towns in Greece and sell vegetables, peddle merchandise and do odd jobs. Unfortunately, they are sometimes involved in more illicit activities, be it running guns or drugs. And then there is child trafficking, a lucrative practice where a young blonde girl would make a wonderful beggar or much worse. There are allegations Maria was already begging on the streets.

Apparently there was never a birth agency that tracked children in Greece until just a few years ago and, if what the woman who had Maria first told police, she would have had to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months. Authorities were also alarmed that 10 of 14 children claimed by the couple can now not be found. It seems the more children a family claims, the more that family can get in welfare payments. At latest word, the gypsy couple has said they adopted Maria shortly after she was born.

What makes the young girl further intriguing is the cover from a June 1985 issue of National Geographic. A magazine photographer snapped a picture of an Afghanistan girl at a refugee camp that immediately became one of the most iconic pictures ever taken. The haunted look in the Afghani child’s eyes, surely the result of travelling at night to avoid Soviet bombs, is one that none of us can forget.

Some years later the acclaimed photographer, Steve McCurry, was accompanied by a writer and returned to the refugee camp with only the picture and, after a laborious effort, found Sharbat Gula. Her parents had been killed when she was six and the photograph doesn’t show the burns or the horrors she had endured when the picture was taken of her at age 13.

The photographer found Sharbat and the result was almost staggering. Now 29 or 30 and the mother of three children, “the Afghan girl” was married to a baker in a marriage that had been arranged long before. She looked like an old woman, her face tired and her eyes dull in contrast to the award-winning photo.

Today’s prayer is that the future will be far brighter for the blonde child in Greece. Eight or nine “promising inquiries”  – four from the United States and the others from Europe -- are now being vetted and the charity charged with Maria’s safekeeping reported Monday that it has received almost 10,000 calls regarding the girl. Modern-day forensics believe Maria may be more like 5 or 6 years old but DNA tests confirmed almost immediately that she is not the daughter of the gypsy couple.

A director of the charity agency, “A Child’s Smile,”  credited the prosecutor who had accompanied the police raid with Maria’s rescue. “She saw a little blonde head sticking out of the bedcovers and it struck her as odd; that's how it all started."

The director said the couple in question had obtained a birth certificate for Maria in Athens. "We are shocked by how easy it is for people to register children as their own," he told reporters. "There is much more to investigate. There are other registered children that were not found in the settlement, and I believe police will unravel a thread that doesn't just have to do with the girl."

With the world’s news media in furious pursuit, there are constant updates pouring from Greece but until there are more answers, people just like me are praying for a quick solution.  Maria is an immediate concern but it is hoped her story will bring a harsh light on human trafficking as well.

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