MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — The father of a Roma immigrant girl who has become a cause celebre in France said Friday he pretended his family was from Kosovo in hope of gaining pity — and political asylum.
The lie didn't work, and he and his family were expelled as illegal immigrants. His revelation is the latest twist in a tale that has shaken the French government and sent thousands of French high school students into the street, protesting on behalf of deported classmates.
The girl, 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani, was taken by police from a school field trip last week, then sent to Kosovo with her family. While such expulsions occur regularly as France tries to stem illegal immigration, the circumstances of the arrest — in front of Leonarda's classmates and teachers — shocked many.
France's Socialist government is investigating. Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he would get the results of the investigation Saturday. Meanwhile, questions have surfaced over the Dibrani family history.
Activists who worked with the family initially said they had fled Kosovo because of discrimination against Roma, or Gypsies, and limited opportunities. But Leonarda's father, Reshat Dibrani, told The Associated Press on Friday that the Kosovo story was a lie aimed at achieving a better life for his six children.
Presenting copies of their birth certificates, he said he was born in Kosovo but moved to Italy years ago, and that his children were born in Italy but don't have Italian citizenship. He believed they had a better chance at permanently settling in France than Italy, so he moved the family to France, claiming the whole family was from impoverished, post-war Kosovo.
"We said in France that we had come from Kosovo so that we could get the papers," he said in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. "If I had told them that I am Kosovar and that (the children) were born in Italy, then France would say go back to Italy."
He said many immigrant families try similar stories. "You look to do what's best for the family," he said. The case of the Dibrani family and an Armenian high school student expelled last weekend prompted protests by high school students around Paris. Thousands of teenagers, saying the expulsions are unfair to immigrant children trying to get an education and a better life, rallied peacefully at the Place de la Bastille. A few threw stones and pens at riot police trying to slow down their march, and were met by tear gas.
Leonarda Dibrani said she's "very grateful" for the students' support.
Angela Charlton and Nicolas Garriga in Paris contributed to this report.