The affordable education loan option
London - Dancing reluctantly for the crowd, the blue-eyed, pale-skinned little girl looks lost and out of place.
The child, filmed just three weeks ago in the crime-ridden Roma settlement where she was found by police, is now at the centre of an international appeal to uncover her identity.
On Sunday, a charity caring for the girl, who is known as Maria and understood to be four years old, said she was treated like a “dancing bear” by the family she lived with - who exploited her innocent looks, making her beg for money.
Maria, who the Greek media dubbed the “blonde angel”, is the focus of a global Interpol investigation after she was found in the Tabakou gypsy settlement near Farsala, central Greece, during a drug and gun raid last week. Police grew suspicious as she bore no resemblance to the couple claiming to be her parents.
DNA tests showed she is not related to Hristos Salis, 39, and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, who have been charged with child abduction. They will appear in court on Monday as it emerged:
- Police said they found a handgun and balaclava at the house where they found Maria.
- Around 5 000 inquiries have been made about the girl. Eight were described as promising, including four from the USA, and others from Sweden, France, Canada and Poland.
- The arrested couple’s family have defended two unsettling videos of Maria, saying she was not exploited. In the first video, from two years ago, she sucks on a dummy as she is made to twirl for the camera, being pushed and manhandled by a laughing Dimopoulou.
As she tries to wander off, the woman seizes her back. At one point, a young boy tries to join in, but the woman shoves him away.
In the latest footage, she appears with Maria Dimitriou, 21, grand-daughter of the gypsy camp’s leader. Mrs Dimitriou told the Mail: “Her mother sent her to join us on the stage. She liked dancing - she was not treated badly.”
Maria was “filthy and terrified” when social services took her to Athens-based charity Smile Of The Child on Wednesday.
Spokesman Panayiotis Pardalis said: “It was obvious that she was not a Roma girl. The little girl was terrified when she first came to us and didn’t talk at all, but she is now calm and has been playing with other kids.”
Director Costas Yannopoulos added: “She was living under bad conditions and was very dirty, but is now safe.”
She was released from hospital on Sunday, after tests were carried out on her teeth to try to determine her age. Mr Yannopoulos said evidence so far suggested she had been trafficked.
He told the Daily Mail: “In the footage you could see her dancing, going round and round like a little trained bear. I believe they were getting money from exploiting the child.”
Dimopoulou’s daughter Panagiota, 18, who released the footage to local television, defended the video.
“Maria likes dancing,” she said. “She was only pushed in the video because she got too close to the camera. There is no way we would use her for money - that is a lie. We took her in because her mother could not look after her.”
Last night family members showed the Mail the house where Maria was found. They revealed a small but tidy brick home and claimed the only bedroom - with the only bed, a pink bedspread and cuddly toys - was reserved for her use. A cupboard, again the only one in the house, contained little girl’s shoes and other clothes.
Pictures released by police show the little girl’s blonde hair may have been dyed brown when she was younger - indicating the family may have wanted to hide her difference. But another daughter Emmannuella, 16, said Maria’s hair turned blonde naturally.
Mr Yannopoulos said it was “well known” that “there is a baby-trade conducted by gypsies between Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and England”.
The couple have told various stories - that she was abandoned by a Bulgarian woman, or found on a rubbish tip - but Mr Yannopoulos said it is more likely she is from Scandinavia.
Police said the family received more than £7 000 a month in benefits for the 14 children they claimed to have. Police chief Vassilis Halatsis added that the woman had two separate ID cards and names.
He said: “Of the children we have traced so far, just by looking at them you can see that there is very little or no resemblance at all to the parents.
“It is obvious that we are faced with a very well-organised racket, and it is certainly not the only one.”
Neighbours said the couple gave Maria special treatment because of her blonde hair. One woman, washing children’s clothes in a bathtub, said: “She was treasured because she was so beautiful... We all loved her.”
Salis’s brother Kostas added: “She had problems with her eyes. We took her to the doctor, we took her everywhere. We didn’t take her to sell her.”
Haralambos Dimitriou, 57, president of the gypsy settlement, said any conflicting accounts of how Maria came to the family were given “out of fear”.
Marietta Palavra, lawyer for the couple, said: “There is nothing but love and care between the Roma parents and the four-year-old girl.”
She said they could each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. - Daily Mail