An old tale of snatching children is haunting the Roma people in Europe

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Audio Transcript: Marco Werman: For the past week, Maria's picture has been all over the front pages of Europe. She's the pale, blonde-haired, blue-eyed child who was found living with a darker-skinned Roma couple in Greece. A DNA test found her to be unrelated to the couple, and police are investigating whether the girl is a victim of child-trafficking. A similar case, also involving a blonde child, has emerged in Ireland. Except there, a DNA test has reportedly proved that the girl is part of the Roma family she was with. Allegations of child trafficking by the Roma, also known as Romany or Gypsies, are not new in Europe, but the spotlight on their communities is especially hot right now, according to Jake Bowers. He's a Roma journalist, based in London, and an advocate on behalf of his community. Jake Bowers: Well, it's shocking, the level of hysteria that there is in Europe over this issue, shocking on many levels. Firstly, that children can be taken from their families just because they look differently from their parents, but also shocking because the way the media is reporting it feeds straight upon a very old stereotype, that the Gypsy people, Romany people, are people who are prone to child snatching. It's a very old European myth which you find built into nursery rhymes, like the one we have in England, "My mother said I never should play with the Gypsies in the wood." It's being repeated as fact. Gypsy people across Europe are frightened. They're scared that their children are going to be taken off them if they look a little bit different from them. Werman: Let's take some of this stereotypes apart. What's striking about the story is that these children were taken away because they looked different. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed. Not stereotypical Roma. You yourself have light hair, right? Bowers: That's right. It was white-blonde when I was a child. It's increasingly grey at the moment. I'm fair-skinned. I've blue eyes, as do many Romany people across Europe, even in countries like Romania with massive Romany populations, the majority of which are dark, it's true. There are many families that have blonde children. On that basis alone, to judge Gypsy people as being guilty before proven innocent -- the community is scared that these horrible parts of our history are about to replay themselves. Werman: I think for a lot of Americans, this is an unfamiliar world,but there does seem to be a cultural clash between nomadic Roma communities and settled Europeans. Do you think that clash contributes to these incidents? Bowers: That is the background noise to all this stuff, that there is undeniably a cultural clash between the Roma community and some settled communities across Europe. We still have an outlook on the world which is nomadic. We see ourselves as probably really the only real true Europeans in that Europe is our home, and we feel that we have the right to be everywhere. But there is also this problem, that the Roma people across Europe are highly impoverished and highly socially excluded, so there are very real problems with Roma people begging in European cities, which has caused a lot of people in places like Paris, Madrid, Dublin, London, very aggravated about. But just because a community, because of its poverty, may indulge in begging, does not therefore mean that it's involved in widespread child trafficking or snatching. Werman: The whole drama does seem, as you've indicated, to amount to hysteria over the question: Gypsy or not a Gypsy? I use that word with reservations. What do you think this story and all narratives like it tell you about the way that people continue to react to the Roma people across Europe? Bowers: I think the narrative and the way it's going shows that there's profound ignorance about who we are, where we're from, and what we've contributed to European history and culture. It's symptomatic of the great cultural divide that there is between what I would say is settled European society and the Roma community. Werman: Jake Bowers, Roma journalist based in London. He advocates on behalf of the Romany community. Jake, great to meet you. Thank you. Bowers: Thank you.