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Daniel Ruth

A mother's joy turns to anguish

It is a few days before Christmas, and I'm wandering hopelessly through the children's clothing department at Dillard's. I have been assigned to find a dress for a 9-year-old girl. Growing up with three brothers and having raised two boys, I am woefully out of my element.

But I have to get this right. The dress is for Kleopatra, who along with her 11-year-old brother, Yiannis, have had so much of their childhood stolen from them. I'm not just buying a dress for a child. I want the gift to say that her tomorrows will be better than her more recent yesterdays.

Yiannis was easy. He loves basketball. And so a Miami Heat jersey with LeBron James' name on the back and a book about the NBA superstar, I know, will light up his eyes.

I hadn't expected the runup to the holidays to turn so emotional. But I was about to become a bit player in a tense international drama, which began when Sofia Dionysopoulou stepped off a plane late one night after a long journey from Athens.

In April, Sofia's estranged husband, Constantinos Papadoulis, had abducted Kleopatra and Yiannis during a visitation in Athens, eventually making his way with the children to Largo in Pinellas County. For months an anguished Sofia had no idea of the whereabouts of her children. In the meantime, her father had died after a heart attack. Her mother, struggling with the stress, had been forced to retire from her job.

Then a story about the children appeared on Greece's version of America's Most Wanted. A Greek resident of Largo recognized Kleopatra and Yiannis. Authorities were contacted and the case became a matter for the Hague Convention, the international law dealing with abducted children.

Fate is a curious thing. Sofia selected the law firm of Holland & Knight to represent her pro bono in the quest to get her children back. She simply liked the sound of the firm's name. My wife, Angela, is the executive director of the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation. And because she is fluent in Greek, in the months leading up to Sofia's arrival Angela assisted the attorneys on the case, Mike Chapman and Dominic Kouffman, translating documents and serving as an interpreter.

After Sofia arrived in Tampa and after U.S. District Judge James Whittemore ordered the U.S. marshals to retrieve the children, I was pressed into service to drive the family to various appointments. I became "Meester Dan."

As you might imagine, the children were emotional basket cases. Papadoulis had effectively poisoned the well, telling them their mother didn't love them and had abandoned them. Life in Largo often had been a hand-to-mouth existence. There was much work to be done.

But over the course of 10 days, after many fits and starts, Kleopatra and Yiannis began to come around. Hugs became more frequent. Smiles and laughter, too.

The Greek community at St. John's Greek Orthodox Church embraced the family. Chapman generously invited Sofia and the children to his home and picked up dinner tabs, including one to celebrate Yiannis' birthday.

This was far more than a mere legal proceeding. Lives and hearts quickly intertwined. Angela and the children baked Christmas cookies. Kleopatra and Yiannis fell in love with our dogs.

I wasn't sure what to do, so I bought Kleopatra two dresses. They seemed to be a hit since she wore one of them every day.

Shortly before New Year's, Whittemore signed an order allowing Sofia to return to Greece with her children. At last, her nightmare was over. At a dinner at the Taverna Opa in Channelside, Sofia danced to the Greek music. The children played. At last, it was finally over.

It had been a transformative experience for everyone. Chapman, who has had a very successful legal career, mused that few cases had ever given him more satisfaction as a lawyer. Sofia, who had been told Americans were terrible people, had come to love this country.

For Angela and me, it was as if we had extended our family. We would travel to Greece perhaps this summer and spend time with Sofia and Kleopatra and Yiannis.

And then on March 7 came the frantic call from Sofia. Papadoulis had somehow made his way back to Athens. While he looked on, two thugs Maced Sofia, beat her and cut her while Papadoulis again snatched the children away.

They have not been seen since.

On our refrigerator are several lovely drawings by a 9-year-old girl, a gift from Kleopatra. But she had given us so much more. And now she and her brother are gone. But where?

A mother's joy turns to anguish 03/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 7:52pm]

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