Jesse Singal and Thodoris Skoulis, Special for USA TODAY
ATHENS - An unknown little blonde girl found living in a Roma camp with a couple who are not her parents has opened an international hunt for her real mother and father and sparked age-old anger against Gypsies who are among the poorest people in Europe.
"This story shocked me," said Vassilis Sarantidis, 37, a civil engineer in Athens. "We all see on the streets how the Roma use their children - they hit them, they force them to beg. They must all be investigated."
But the couple insists they were given the child by a destitute mother and some people are warning Greeks not to give in to bigotry over a child whose story is being sensationalized in the press.
"The allegation that Roma steal children is a long-lasting myth about the Roma minority," said Andreas Hieronymus, a researcher at the European Network Against Racism based in Hamburg, Germany.
Thousands of people have called the Smile of the Child charitable group that has been caring for the girl, named Maria, to ask about her welfare and give tips on who she may be. She remains unidentified, and the group said a dental exam indicates she is 4 to 6 years old.
She was found during a police raid on a Roma, or Gypsy, settlement near Farsala in central Greece, where many residents try to make a living selling fruits, blankets, baskets and shoes. Police were looking for suspects for gun-running, drug dealing and other crimes.
The couple claimed they were the girl's biological parents, but because her appearance was so different than the adults, the girl was given a DNA test that confirmed she did not belong to them.
The couple, a 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman, appeared Monday before an investigating judge in Larissa to face criminal charges of child abduction, which carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
Both denied the charges. They say they adopted the child when she was just days old and were motivated by charity, after being approached by an intermediary for a destitute foreign mother who reportedly could not afford to raise the child, Greek newspapers reported their lawyer as saying.
Police allege the woman said she gave birth to six children in less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children the couple had registered as their own were not found. Investigators said it is unclear whether all the children exist or were falsified to qualify for child care payments from the Greek welfare system.
Police say the two suspects received about $3,420 a month in subsidies from three different cities where they had registered the children.
The couple has been charged with illegally obtaining official documents such as birth records. The man also faces separate charges, together with other people from the settlement, for allegedly possessing an illegal firearm and drug-related offenses.
Greek police have also sought assistance from Interpol, the international police agency, which has 38 girls younger than 6 on its missing persons database. None of them, however, fit the girl's description and the agency only receives cases when member governments seek its help.
Meanwhile, several Greek media outlets reported that police believe her real parents might be a Bulgarian couple that worked in the area.
Smile of the Child, the child welfare agency caring for the girl, said that Maria is finding it hard to communicate because she speaks mostly Roma but she has told a psychologist taking care of her that she is happy, according to the Greek news website, Kathimerini.
The head of the agency, Constantinos Yiannopoulos, said the girl has not asked to see any member of the family she previously lived with.
"In contrast to the first day, when she was in a state of shock, little Maria is now feeling absolutely calm," Yiannopoulos said. "She felt our support and warmth and it's significant that she is in an environment that is clean."
But some worry that the incident will be used to stigmatize and harass Romas, a people with their own language who live primarily in Central and Eastern Europe.
Hieronymus said Europeans feel free to complain about Roma and promote stereotypes about them. And as economic conditions worsen, so too do attitudes toward the group, he said. Greece is in its fifth year of recession and unemployment has almost hit 30%, and most Roma are on Greece's welfare system.
Amnesty International has detailed "massive discrimination" against Roma in housing, education and other areas, in a report on its website. In Greece, more than 80% of Roma are illiterate, according to Greece media reports.
Public-opinion polling in the EU shows that anti-Roma sentiments are persistent. A survey in the Czech Republic earlier this year found that one-third of 12-to-15-year-olds said they would never be friends with a Roma.
The exact origins of the Roma are not certain; linguistic evidence suggests they originated from the Rajasthanis, an ethnic group that arrived from India after the 11th century.
The Roma are also often used as to describe traditionally migrant groups such as Gypsies and travelers who are not well-integrated into their societies. They have been stereotyped often in film and tens of thousands of Gypsies were rounded up by Nazi Germany and killed in World War II.
Statistics show that the Roma do much worse than the general European population on a variety of health, educational and economic indicators. A 2012 survey by the European Union Advocacy for Fundamental Rights said more than 80% of Roma in the EU live in households at risk of poverty. While 70% of EU citizens have completed higher level secondary education, only 15% of Roma had, according to the group.
Some Roma communities have been accused of involvement in criminal enterprises. In France, 27 Roma who came from Croatia went on trial in September on charges they enlisted their wives and children, some as young as age 10, to carry out burglaries across Europe.
A lack of modern labor skills and need for public assistance have made Roma increasingly unwelcome in countries of which they are not citizens.
France has been evicting Roma from the country regularly in recent months and is trying to stop them from crossing the border into the country. Last week a Roma girl was pulled off a school bus to be deported with her family back to Kosovo.
Matthias Reichelt, a Berlin-based journalist and curator who has worked on Roma issues, said that certain stereotypes are deeply ingrained in the European idea of who the Roma are.
"The problem is that anytime there is a case where Roma are involved, the case gets (ethnically loaded)," he said. "The preoccupation in the case of Roma means poverty, begging, slums, dirt, a lack of education and crime."
Reichelt said that the progress other minority groups have made in terms of their public perception seems not to have reached the Roma.
"But with respect to the prejudices and preoccupations concerning Roma we still have to learn the lesson," he said.
Some Greeks say the discrimination is justified.
"After what transpired with the kidnapping of Maria if you are not a racist sometimes you want to be a racist," said Chara Kokkinopoulou, 21, a university student in Athens. "These people do not have feelings and they do anything for money."
But some Gypsies in Greece are worried that they will be blamed for allegations they say they knew nothing about.
The case "doesn't reflect on all of us," said Babis Dimitriou, president of the local Roma community.