Maria, the blonde gypsy
REUTERS/Greek Police/Handout REUTERS/Greek Police/Handout

European media are feasting over the story of a young blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl named Maria who was found living with a Roma (Gypsy) couple in Greece. The girls’ “parents” have been charged with abduction and placed in detention, awaiting trial.

DNA testing has revealed that the couple, Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulo, did not produce the child. But they claim that they were given the child “legally,” while their Roma neighbors assert she has been very well taken care of.

The case evokes some of the worst stereotypes of the Roma people – including the ancient charge that they kidnap children from the dominant, surrounding communities. A much larger issue has to do with the trafficking of minors in Greece and other parts of Eastern Europe, often for the purposes of illegal adoptions and sex work.

But what is being forgotten is that blonde hair and blue eyes are not at all unusual among the international Roma community, which is believed to number up to 20 million people across Europe, with a particularly heavy concentration in Romania and Bulgaria.

Indeed, among the Romanichal, a subset of the Roma who live in Britain and other northern European nations, fair skin and blue eyes are almost commonplace. This blonde phenotype may also be seen among some Roma of Eastern Europe.

Hundreds of thousands of Romanichals also migrated to the U.S. as early as the colonial era. Among Romanichals who attained fame were entertainers Charlie Chaplin and Adam Ant.

Roma are believed to have migrated westward from India sometime in the early Middle Ages -- perhaps as early as 600 A.D. -- moving through Persia, the Near East and ultimately into Eastern and Central Europe. Along the way, they picked up words and customs from the various cultures they encountered. But what prompted them to leave India remains a mystery -- perhaps a desire to escape the oppressive Hindu caste system; or, conversely, a fear of the spread of Islam in India.

In contemporary Europe, the nomadic Roma are principally settled in eastern Europe, where they make up a sizable minority. But smaller Roma communities are also found as far north as Scandinavia and as far west as Britain and Ireland; and as far south as North Africa. The English word "gypsy" is a corruption of "Egyptian," based on the mistaken assumption that the Roma came from Egypt.

Roma have endured extreme poverty, slavery, prejudice, discrimination, social exclusion and even mass murder (culminating in extermination by Nazi Germany) throughout their long history in Europe.

The presence of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Roma may refect a long history of intermarriage with “white” Europeans, but this is not conclusive.

For example, a text on the historical-cultural website speaks of the Camminanti Siciliani or Camminanti di Noto people of Italy.

“Their origins are unknown. … They may be the remnant of the … Sicilian Roma, thoroughly assimilated into Sicilian culture and no longer recognizable as Gypsies,” the site says. The passage further states that “they have a higher rate of blonde individuals than average Italians, [which may suggest] a Nordic or Slavic origin. Sicily was under Norman rule for a period, by which a Scandinavian origin is plausible.”

The so-called “Travelers” of Ireland and Britain have a preponderance of blonde and red hair among them, but they are not strictly speaking, Roma. Indeed, they are believed to be of Celtic origin themselves – but they have been tagged with the derogatory term “gypsies” due to their itinerant lifestyle.

Greece’s Roma community number some 300,000 – 80 percent of whom are illiterate, according to the London-based Minority Rights Group. Roma leaders do not wish to be associated with the case of little blonde Maria.

Babis Dimitriou, president of the local Roma community, told the Associated Press that this episode "doesn't reflect on all of us."