November 24-December 1, 2005
You know who has your daughter. You know where. But you're powerless to do anything about it.
Even before they exchanged vows, there were signs the marriage wouldn't last. Christina was "in la-la land," young and naive and eager to obey her husband. Her parents and grandparents' marriages were strong, and she expected the same for herself and Emmanuel. So she didn't object when he planned every detail of their spring 1995 nuptials down to a four-hour-long ceremony, excessive even by her own Greek Orthodox standards. Her family asked for coffee after the rehearsal dinner and he shouted in frustration that they could go to McDonald's if they wanted coffee. So they did. Christina says that made Emmanuel angry. He was used to getting his way.
"I thought I was happy," she says. "But I was afraid of him. He would always say, 'I know you better than you know yourself.'"
As the marriage wore on, Christina's self-esteem nose-dived. Emmanuel discouraged her from making friends. "They're not Greek enough," he would say, according to his ex-wife. "They're not smart enough."
For seven years, she missed her family's Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. He told her which groceries to buy and dressed her conservatively in men's shirts and pants and button-down dresses.
When their daughter, Varvara, was born, he took charge of naming her, choosing the Greek version of Barbara, after his godmother.
The controlling behavior escalated until the day Christina found herself grappling with mental health issues and helpless against a court order that paved the way for Emmanuel to take Varvara. Before she could plead her case at a scheduled custody hearing, Emmanuel had whisked Varvara out of the country by way of the Philadelphia International Airport. "It was like taking my life," she recalls. That was three years ago.
She hasn't seen her daughter since.
Christina Lazaridis' story is one of 1,350 open cases of international parent abduction, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). A search of the NCMEC's online database shows 11 children are currently missing from Philadelphia. Some of the photographs have been age-corrected to add more than 40 years to the faces of children who ran away from home or never arrived at a friend's house; others were posted as recently as this year. A poster for one girl, Rayna Rew Harris, says she has been missing since 1997 and may have been taken to Japan. (The NCMEC does not discuss specific cases.)
In cases like Christina's, a parent takes the child back to his or her home country and refuses to return to the left-behind parent. Christina's case is more challenging than most because she believes Emmanuel "Manoli" Lazaridis has moved aroundfrom France to Switzerland to Greece and who knows where elsewith their daughter.
"It's unfortunately very sad when parents hide and, like this father appears to be doing, move from country to country," says Susan Rohol, supervising attorney for the international division of the NCMEC. "It's heartbreaking when you see cases like this. Authorities do work with local police, but it's not impossible to hide."
If what Christina says is true, Emmanuel is a long way from home. The Wilmington, Del., native has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. His father, Anastas, is a former engineering professor at Widener University, 20 miles south of Philadelphia.
"There should be some type of law that states that a person can't move from country to country, just avoiding a court hearing if he does not like it," Christina says via e-mail. "The trouble is each country has to be told that this person is just fleeing the courts of another country. Each country is different and the courts take time."
In Emmanuel's version of events, he has done nothing wrong. He disagrees with everything Christina has said about about himso much so that he filed a 63-page libel lawsuit against her and a Michigan newspaper this summer. He figured out how to file the document electronically because he would be arrested if he were to enter the United States. He is representing himself in this matter and City Paper's attempts to reach his former lawyers in the United States were unsuccessful.
The defendants are the Grand Rapids Press, which published several stories about the alleged abduction, and B.V.H., which refers to www.bringvarvarahome.org, the online home of Christina's nonprofit. Last month, Jim Brady, the Press' attorney, filed a motion to dismiss the case on grounds that a fugitive from the United States cannot sue someone here. At press time, the judge had yet to rule on the motion.
One of Christina's biggest legal battles has been getting the courts to decide which country has jurisdiction to hear the custody matter. After a year and a half, Hague proceedings decided on France, yet Emmanuel still insists Greek courts have jurisdiction because he says he and Varvara have lived there "openly and lawfully" since 2002.
Matt Neiderman, a Wilmington attorney working pro bono for Christina, explains France has jurisdiction because courts look backward, at where the couple lived before the abduction. If courts were to look forward, at where the abductor parent takes the child, that would give parents like Emmanuel an advantage, Neiderman says.
Christina is not convinced Greek authorities will track down Varvara. "Although he is only an American, since his parents are from Greece he is considered a Greek national," she says. "I cannot touch him."
Maureen Heads, an international case specialist with the NCMEC, says Greece has been "very cooperative" and the country's response in such cases "could be worse." Still, it's difficult to tell whether Greece will cooperate fully. A 2005 U.S. State Department report categorizes Greece as "not fully compliant" with the Hague Convention, a set of international guidelines governing more than 60 member states, including the United States, Greece, France and Switzerland.
The designation does not bode well for Christina's chances of getting Varvara back. For example, the report says Greece's courts exhibit "a pattern of nationalistic preference" and prefer that the child lives surrounded by extended family, as Varvara does in Greece. A representative from the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C., says as long as Christina notifies all the proper authorities in Greece, they will search for her daughter.
Dolores Trese, an attorney with Legal Aid of Western Michigan who is working for free for Christina, concedes that dealing with Greece may be difficult, but no matter where he hides, in the end it's Emmanuel keeping Varvara away from her mother that poses the biggest roadblock. "It's largely a case of him making it impossible [for Christina to be reunited with Varvara]," Trese says. Emmanuel says in court documents that he took Varvara out of the United States legally because a Michigan court granted him temporary custody. He fails to mention a second court order, issued a few days later, which prohibited him from taking the girl out of the country.
Courts have sided with Christina and given her legal powers. Last summer a French court awarded her physical custody and a few months later, a federal court in Michigan issued a felony kidnapping warrant for Emmanuel, meaning he will be arrested if he steps on U.S. soil.
"She's met him at every legal front and won," says Neiderman, the attorney. "Legally, it's a big hurdle. She's shooting at a moving target."
Although Christina's marriage was doomed from the start, she didn't realize how bad things had gotten until one night, seven years in, when she found herself trapped in a penthouse high above Lyon, France.
It was September 2002 and the couple had moved there four months earlier so Emmanuel could take a biostatistician job with the World Health Organization. They were fighting, like they had so many other times. But this time Christina says Emmanuel went too far, threatening to kill her and kidnap the chubby-cheeked, 2-year-old Varvara.
Christina tried to call her sister back in the States, but Emmanuel snatched the phone out of her hand and told her something she now repeats to lawyers, police and anyone who will listen. "He said I could stay until Varvara was 5 or 18 years old, depending on how good I was," Christina says in a phone interview from the Michigan home she now shares with her parents. "And if I was good, he might give me another child. That's when I thought, 'OK, this man is crazy.'"
A day or two later, Christina grabbed Varvara, a diaper bag with a change of clothes and the passports and ran to the American embassy's post in Lyon. She assumed that once inside the building's walls, she would be safe. Instead, someone there told her to go to the airport to escape.
She flew to London, Chicago and finally Grand Rapids, where her parents, June and John Wehmer, were waiting. "She had her baby and the clothes on her back," John recalls. "She hugged us and we took her home."
"She was scared," June adds. "She knew there were going to be problems."
Of course, Christina couldn't fathom the problems she would have over the next three years. Her parents were granted temporary guardianship of Varvara while Christina was in the hospital, coping with psychological problems, which were worsened, her doctors say, by years in the troubled marriage.
When the Wehmers sought an extension of their guardianship, Emmanuel came to Michigan, where the court granted him temporary custody. Although the court specifically prohibited him from taking Varvara out of the country, Christina says, that's exactly what he did.
According to Christina, he somehow obtained a duplicate passport for Varvara and ignored the court's order. On Dec.1, 2002, Christina says, Emmanuel, his mother and Varvara caught a flight from Philadelphia International Airport to Paris. A manifest shows the trio had a reservation for the flight, but does not confirm they boarded.
Christina saw Varvara for the last time three years ago this month at a court proceeding in Michigan. "It was hell," she says. "It was the worst time in my life. When he had her, I knew he wasn't going to return her."
Christina and Emmanuel met at a church youth group gathering. She was 23 and thinking of becoming a nun. He was 25 and earning his Ph.D. in statistics at the University of Chicago. She was struck by his intelligence. He told her she reminded him of his sister.
They were friends for three years before he proposed. The fact that they never dated did not seem strange to her. "The Greeks still do arranged marriages," she explains.
So she married him and, despite what she says were his constant efforts to isolate her, she stayed with him. After living in Indianapolis, Ind., for three years, the couple moved to Florida, where Emmanuel worked for Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Varvara was born and for a few months the family lived with Emmanuel's parents in Wilmington. Christina has fond memories from that time of taking Varvara to see dinosaur bones at the Academy of Natural Sciences and, earlier, taking her to Busch Gardens.
In photographs from Christina's Web site, the mother-daughter resemblance is clear. They share the same plump cheeks and, sitting on a bench in front of Lake Michigan, smile for the camera. In another shot, Varvara claps her hands as her grandfather, John, looks on proudly.
These happy times were rare by the time Christina and Emmanuel moved to Lyon, France, in May 2002. (In court documents, Emmanuel contends the family "never lived in France as a unit," but he does not elaborate.)
Christina's sister, Lynette Wehmer, 24, stayed with the couple in France for a month, but she left before Emmanuel allegedly threatened Christina's life. "He treated my sister terribly," Lynette says. Like Christina, her sisters blame Emmanuel's parents for helping keep mother and daughter apart. "They're Greek," another sister, Janel Dykstra, 31, says, matter-of-factly. "This is their son. He is their priority."
Emmanuel is a clever man, just like his mother and father, who greatly value education, Christina says. "They are a smart family," she says. "But evil smart, you know what I mean?"
Contacted by phone at home, Emmanuel's mother said, "I don't think I want to comment at this time. [Christina] has libeled our family." When asked why Emmanuel has kept mother and daughter apart, she said, "Christina needs to go where her daughter is." Is she in Greece? "She knows where her daughter is. This is a family issue played out in the media. There have been several libelous articles." Before the woman could finish talking, a man got on the line, said "goodbye" and disconnected the call.
Emmanuel implies in court documents that Christina should not be believed because of her battles with bipolar disorder. It's an allegation Christina does not deny. "Even criminals, terrible people, get to see their children," she says in reply. "So no matter what they say, I have a right to see my daughter."
Asked about her condition, Christina immediately faxes over a letter from her psychiatrist, Isha Salva, dated April 27, 2005. "[Christina] is doing well, with good insight and good judgment and should have her daughter back," Salva wrote.
Until that day comes, Christina treats finding her daughter like a full-time job. She stays focused, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to make phone calls abroad. When Europe goes to sleep, she pleads her case to American officials, everyone from FBI investigators to politicians, from police officers to lawyers.
But there are certain times of the year when Varvara's absence hits her especially hard. "Every holiday, it's as if she's died," she says, "and I'm experiencing the death over and over again."
Cars scream by on the busy street. It's dark and raining. Christina is calling from a pay phone.
"This is really not safe," she says over a crackling connection. Words tumble out of her mouth quickly and her tone is more harried than the other times she has called. "This is very, very dangerous for me to be doing what I'm doing."
Christina is so terrified Emmanuel will find yet another way to thwart her efforts that she won't say where she is or reveal any details of her current search. With the support of family and friends, Christina has stayed determined while navigating a complicated maze of international parent-custody channels. Through her Web site she solicits donations and tries to raise awareness of her plight. She has spent an estimated $100,000 in fees, document translations and travel expenses. "I'll never give up," she says. "She's my daughter."
Nowadays Christina tracks Varvara's growth by spending time with her sister Janel Dykstra's three daughters. Michelle, 5, is four months younger than Varvara; Charity, 3, loves books as Varvara once did; and Joanna, 1, is slightly younger than Varvara when she disappeared. "I just remember her sweet cheeks, bright smile, thick hair," Janel says. "She was a happy child I cry for her often. We pray for her every night. We love her very much."
Christina's singular priority became her daughter five years ago in a Florida hospital delivery room the instant the doctor set the newborn girl on her chest. "She was the most beautiful baby in the world," Christina said through tears a few days earlier. "For the first day and night she stayed right there. This was the most wonderful time of my life."
Someone knocks on the outside of the telephone booth. She has to go.