The family joke was that I'd been stolen. Suddenly it isn't the least bit funny anymore, writes Filip Borev.
If we were to make a list of reasons as to why a child should be taken into state care, "being blonde" would probably not make the cut. This week, however, two Roma children in Athlone and Dublin in Ireland 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 Dublin child has already been DNA-proven to belong to her parents. And Maria's birth parents are now confirmed as Bulgarians, who say they left her with a woman in Greece. But it seems the Roma are considered child abductors until proven innocent, with police and social services ready to pounce on any Roma parents who dare to produce a blonde child.
Don't get me wrong: blonde hair is 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 much 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 blonde hair.
In the current environment, however, I must ask just how funny this joke is. While the case of Maria in Greece seems distant, Ireland is just next door to me, here in Britain. Could my mum and stepdad be the next Roma parents to receive a knock at the door? Will my brother be the next Roma child to be carted off for DNA testing?
The community in which Maria and her family live were always adamant that she was informally adopted after being abandoned at birth.
Informal adoption and foster care are not unusual within the Romany population. I lived with my grandmother for many years – there were no forms and no paperwork. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that there is a reluctance to engage with state agencies when they have oppressed us for so long.
It has become increasingly apparent that the criminal justice system in Greece is unlikely to consider the plausibility of informal adoption. The domination of right-wing and overtly prejudiced attitudes towards Roma, not only in Greece but in Europe, will arguably hold sway if any trial still goes ahead.
The plight of the 12-million Roma who live in Europe has largely been ignored since their arrival 1 500 years ago. They have been victims of slavery, forced sterilisation, segregated education, ghettoisation and forced assimilation. An estimated 500 000, including members of my family, were murdered by Nazi Germany – no reparations were paid, no apologies made, barely any mention in your children's history textbooks. Poverty is widespread: millions of families live in ghettos.
And, though there are commentators from the left condemning the handling and coverage of Maria's alleged abduction, almost as oppressive as the racism is the fact that the Romany voice has gone mostly unheard.
The oppression of Europe's Romany has lasted thousands of years and the case of Maria is merely the tip of the iceberg. Will the commentators remain so vocal when Maria is no longer newsworthy? – © Guardian News & Media 2013
Filip Borev is a Romany Gypsy blogger