Standing in someone else’s shoes

… continued from Parveen makes a discovery

They share their office block with the Open University, a theatre and a cinema – Despicable Me 3 is showing this week.

Stanka Parać, the head of Subotica’s Local Democracy Agency, welcomes us for our final session with our hosts and members of the Roma community.

While craft materials are laid out on the table I ask Miloš what he thought of the previous day. “It was very inspiring,” he says genuinely. “It wasn’t just talking. You could see actual objects which helped visualise what you were learning. There were no dry words.”

“We’d like you to think of the characters from the stories you heard yesterday,” begins Kim once the group is settled. “And to make a small figure for us to hold in our hands and think about a message they might give us.”

There’s barely elbow room around the table which adds an intimacy of cooperation as scissors, tape and balls of wool are passed around.

“Who are you making?” I ask as I walk around the table with my tape recorder.

“I’m making Muhamet,” says Filip. “His story from yesterday really inspired me.”

“My grandmother,” says Rejhana.

“I’m making my grandfather,” says Miloš.

“Who are you making Dušica?”

“I’m not sure yet,” she says. “I think it may be an older woman I know of who survived Auschwitz.”

Half an hour later a dozen or more small figures from wooden clothes pegs, wire and scraps of material are complete. “And now attach a message that your figure might have for us all,” says Kim.

After the final messages have been shared Chris and Kim bring the session, and our trip, to a close by outlining the next steps.

Our visit here is just the beginning,” says Chris. “We’re inviting participants from each of the countries we’ve visited – Poland, Italy and Serbia – to come to Yorkshire in October. We’ll share our stories and create new work together.

“And then we’ll ask you to come back again in January – all your costs will be met – so we can present our creative work at Holocaust Memorial Day. The international theme this next year is the power of words.”

It’s been tiring but hugely rewarding for our small team this week. Early tomorrow we set off back across the border to fly home from Budapest. As we walk back to our hotel – in the hope the water is now back on – I ask Joanne and Parveen to reflect on the last week.

“I knew I’d be out of my comfort zone,” says Joanne, “but it’s been a real privilege to meet  new people and hear some very personal stories. I like to think I’ve got a good sense of justice, and this has made me more aware of everything that’s still going on in the world.”

“And we’ve been reflecting on things together, haven’t we?” says Parveen. “It’s been good to have someone to share it all with.

“As well as discovering my own connection with the Roma community I’ll take away something that Stanka said to us today. She talked about integration versus interaction.”

“What did she mean?” I ask.

“When a host community welcomes newcomers they expect them to assimilate into that community,” explains Parveen. “Whereas perhaps what we should aspire to is an exchange of ideas and cultures between us that we all benefit from.”

“And what memory will stay with you, Joanne?”

“Yesterday Sanja’s daughter drew me a picture. On it she’d written the word, love. For me that crystallised everything we’ve been talking about. If our young people will keep that feeling of love that’s all we need isn’t it?

“Perfect,” I say.

Parveen makes a discovery

continued from Spreading a creative response to oppression across Europe

There’s consternation in the hotel this morning. The water supply for the whole city is to be switched off this evening until 6pm tomorrow for emergency repairs. Not everyone in our group is happy.

Today the market next to the Roma office is buzzing. We’ve arrived a little early for our workshop so we can take a look. Joanne goes in search of dry shampoo but comes back with chocolate.

Our session kicks off with a short talk from Stevan about the work of the Edukatiuni Centrar Roma, supporting and advocating for the local Roma community. “To make change we need to partner with other mainstream organisations,” he says.

“We’d like to show you some of the work we’ve been doing in Yorkshire,” says Chris, preparing his laptop, “and then tell you some snippets of the stories we’ve heard from survivors who live in our community.”

The lights are switched off. “The film you’re about to see shows some giant puppets that me and Joanne and her daughter Iris helped to make,” says Parveen. “Next year we’ll be working with the Hungarian community in Kirklees to make a Hungarian Roma figure.”

We watch the Holocaust Memorial Day event from last January where local schoolchildren work with survivors to re-enact their stories.

“How did the young people react?” asks Filip as the credits fade.

“Very positively,” says Kim. “They knew nothing of the issues and wept when they heard Fatima’s first hand account of gassing in Iraq. They asked her what they could do, how they could make a difference. ‘Just tell my story to others,’ she told them.”

At lunch Parveen helps Rejhana and Nada prepare an impressive spread of salads, fruit and traditional pita pastry.

“I’ve just made a discovery,” Parveen tells me as we’re eating. “I’ve learnt that the Roma migrated originally from India over 2,000 years ago.

“Rejhana showed me a video on her phone. She dances to the same songs that we do and she loves the same Bollywood actors as us! The style of dancing and the dress is so similar… I hadn’t made that connection before.”

“This afternoon we’d like to hear some of your own stories,” says Parveen after our food, “but first we’ll have a little warm-up exercise. When you’re handed this ball of ribbon tell us your name and why your parents gave you that name.”

Everyone forms a circle apart, that is, from Sanja’s ten-year-old daughter who prefers to draw, but is taking it all in. Soon everyone is connected with a criss cross of green ribbon. And again simple creativity reinforces a message.

Muhamet is the first to volunteer to tell his story. He tells of fleeing Kosova with his family in June 1999. Translated by Filip, he recounts an exodus to Montenegro, hoping to board a smugglers ship to take them to Italy, across the Adriatic Sea.

“He says they were living in parks and public spaces,” says Filip, “and, on the night they were due to board ship, the military arrived and moved them on, so they were unable to get to the port. They heard later that the ship sank that night and more than 200 people drowned. They would have been on that ship.”

Rejhana is next to share her family’s experiences of leaving Kosova when she was just ten. She and her siblings faced discrimination at their new school in Belgrade. They made no new friends. Eventually they settled in Subotica which was more welcoming. “You have to be positive,” she says, “and try not to rely on anyone.”

More creative activities follow – aspirations are written on paper ‘buttons’ and a collaborative poem is composed – and the whole time the message trickles down.

“It’s like we haven’t learnt anything,” says Filip. “In Serbia we learn one side of the story, in Croatia they learn another. In Bosnia there’s a third and in Kosovo a fourth. And in the UK they have their own version of our war. None of us know the truth.”

“This is not about what has happened in the past. It is happening right now,” says Dušica. “A lot of people are still dying. We know it’s wrong. Why is someone not doing something?”

The final story from Serbia is here.

Spreading a creative response to oppression across Europe

The border guard opens the side door of the minibus clutching all our passports. “Parveen Butt?” he asks in a strong accent, looking up at Parveen before he passes her passport back. “Joanne Hardcastle?”

I last reported on the collaboration between Creative Scene and the charity 6 million+ when friends Parveen and Joanne were helping to make huge puppets for Holocaust Memorial Day in January.

The two local women met at an arts class they both attend at Batley Girls High School. As Joanne is a mother of three girls – two with special needs – the weekly class provides a bit of ‘me time’. They’ve been friends ever since and jumped at the chance to volunteer on this trip.

Today we’re heading for Subotica in Serbia, a city smaller than Dewsbury and Batley put together. I put my tape recorder in front of Kim Strickson, the charity’s co-ordinator, and ask why.

“So far 6 million+ have done most of our work in Yorkshire, remembering the Holocaust and other genocides and connecting those events to what’s happening around the world now,” she says. “This EU project – Every Button Counts – gives us the opportunity to do that kind of work with other countries.”

The group – there’s also charity trustee and artist, Chris Squire and local artist Mandeep Samra – have flown from Reggio Emilia in Italy today where they’ve heard harrowing accounts of persecution from a diverse group of refugees.  A couple of months ago Kim and Chris visited Lublin in Poland, so this is the third leg of their European tour.

“The emphasis will be on the Roma,” says Kim as we head off the motorway, “and that will be interesting for us because we have a Hungarian Roma community in Kirklees.”

The following morning we’re met by Silvija and Filip from our hosts, the Local Democracy Agency, who take us on a walking tour of the city.

The first stop is the beautiful historic synagogue, currently being restored. “It was built in 1902 in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style, back when Subotica was home to 4,000 Jews,” says our cheerful guide, Sonja, as she passes out hard hats. “Now there are only about 400.”

The city museum – originally built as a home for a prominent Jewish family – is followed by a look inside the impressive town hall that dominates the city centre.

“It’s a living, working municipal town hall,” says Sonja leading us up a central staircase into the council chamber where we take turns to sit in the mayor’s ‘throne’.

After lunch we take two taxis out of town to a deserted indoor market complex. Outside we’re met by the president of the Roma Education Centre, Stevan Nikolic who leads us up to a small office.

“Hello, I’m Joanne,” says Joanne as we all make our introductions. Thankfully a box of name tags appears as Kim introduces the project.

“The name of our organisation comes from the number of buttons we’ve collected to represent the Holocaust and all genocides since World World Two,” she says. “Not only Jewish victims but all those who died, including Roma.”

Chris introduces the first creative activity where everyone is invited to take six buttons from the several piles now laid out on the floor. Each button represents a member of their families and coloured matchsticks connect them together.

“This golden button is my mother,” says Rejhana. “My father’s button is bigger because he is the head of the house. These two red buttons are my sisters.”

“Now place another six buttons around them to show your friends and colleagues,” says Chris. A little later: “And another six to represent the professionals in your community that support you like teachers and doctors.”

Everyone is on their knees having fun covering the floor with patterns of buttons, each one a network of personal connections.

“The next bit is not so enjoyable,” says Chris. “It’s hard, but now take away any red buttons.”

Progressively our participants dismantle their networks as Chris asks for more buttons to be removed. It’s a simple exercise that brings home the individual pain experienced when whole societies are fractured by oppression. It affects people in different ways.

“Dušica found that very difficult,” Joanne tells me later. “When she was asked to remove her mother – a big red button – she couldn’t do it and asked me to do it for her. That made me sad too.”

The Serbian trip continues here.

“It goes splishy sploshy, splishy sploshy.”

Already people are lining the streets in the centre of Cleckheaton eager to get the best view as the riders sweep by. They’ve a long wait.

In the King Edward VII Memorial Park, a large screen set up between Mr Super Scoop ice cream van and the face painting tent shows the peloton riding through another grey part of Yorkshire.

“When are they due here?” I ask the guy next to me.

“Not for another hour and half at least,” he says, bending down to wipe blue ice cream off a child’s face.

On the other side of the war memorial the pedal-powered sculptures – Les Espaces Cyclophones – are piquing interest from the ever-growing crowd.

“They’ve brought these over from Belgium,” I explain to a group of young lads as one pedals the stationary bike as if he’s about to take the yellow jersey.

“Jacob, keep going, peddle, peddle!” encourages his mate as water cascades around a waterwheel.

“Is it for charity?” asks Jacob, out of breath.

“No, no. It’s just for your enjoyment. That’s François,” I say, pointing out a man tinkering with one of the mechanisms. “You should go and say hello.”

“Bonjour. Je m’appelle Liam,” practices Liam.

“Very good.”

Lisa and Anna from Creative Scene are giving out leaflets and collecting email addresses. Sporting bright orange ‘Art Adventurer’ T-shirts they look as if they’ve just got off their bikes.

Seven-year-old Lucas is stood next to a water-filled old bath with a stethoscope round his neck. “What sounds can you hear?” I ask.

“It goes splishy sploshy, splishy sploshy,” he says.

“It’s like an echoey swooshing sound,” his mum adds.

Lucas puts the end of the stethoscope up to his lips. “I can hear myself speaking,” he says.

“We saw all these being put up last night while we were walking the dog,” says Dan, one of the dads standing back, surveying the scene. “We brought the kids down at about 11 – it was nice and quiet then – and they had a play with all the different contraptions.

“It’s intriguing, isn’t it?” he says. “The kids love it. Listening to the different noises, especially the water.”

“Have you had a go?” I ask.

“I have, yeah.”

With the help of some translation from Silvia, François’s collaborator, I find out the velo-powered sculptures were originally built in 2004 and this is the first time they’ve been to the UK.

“Tell me something about these pieces,” I ask. “What can the children and grown-ups experience?”

They converse quickly in French. François’s English is only slightly better than my French. “It’s a visual installation,” Silvia tells me.

“Aussi important…” says François.

“He’s saying that the view and the sound are equally important, and we leave the public to discover it for themselves.”

“… very simple… but the people are Wow, they don’t… d’habitude?” continues Francois.

“Normally,” translates Silvia. “People don’t normally play with something so tactile. They are so used to clicking their computers. And everyone knows how to ride a bike, it’s not complicated.”

Chloe is pedalling the water wheel now. “What do you make of all these in your park?” I ask.

“Good,” her mum says for her, “it should be a regular thing.”

“So these guys have brought all these from Belgium.”

“Wow!” says Chloe.

“No one will recognise us in all of this.”

Yellow bikes are attached to every railing, yellow and blue bunting is strung across every shop front, even the statue of Joseph Priestley has a yellow cycling cape. It must be the Tour de Yorkshire.

“Have you got a bike Len?”

“I have but I’m afraid I didn’t bring it,” I say sheepishly. “I’m going to be the mad one running after you with the camera.”

We’re in Birstall Community Centre where the Strictly Cycling troupe are welcoming their volunteers for today’s performance.

Batley Festival volunteer Donna is here with her teenage daughter Rosie. And Rosie’s friend Joe has just been dropped off by his grandma.

“Above all we’re going to have some fun,” says Kate who’s leading the rehearsals. “You’ll make people smile because you’ll look quite silly.”

Kate and her fellow performers lead everyone outside where a section of the car park has been cordoned off. “So we’ve got about two hours to workshop some stuff and then we’ve got a half hour display slot around the square.

“It’s pretty much just following what we do, repeating the same movements. Then we’ll have a practice with costumes.”

The Bicycle Ballet company has been touring their Strictly Cycling routine for about four years. It’s perfect for today. Art meets sport with a bit of flash mob thrown in.

“One hand on the handlebars and one hand on the frame,” shouts Kate. “Now twizz it round.”

“I’m a bit wobbly,” says Donna.

“That’s okay,” encourages Kate. “Wobbly is good.”

While they’re all rehearsing I wander to the market square where a party atmosphere is developing. A boom box bashes out Freddie Mercury’s ‘Bicycle! bicycle! bicycle!’ as local dancers limber up for their own show.

On one stall Creative Scene’s Parveen is plugging upcoming events and on another Creative Scene supporter Andrew Marsden is setting up his ‘Graf-E-Tee’ stall.

“How’s it going with Batley Does Opera for this year?” I ask.

There’s an intake of breath. “Timings are against us. We’re probably not going to be able to work with Opera North this time. It’s more likely we’ll go more contemporary, perhaps something bespoke for Batley. Which sounds about right.

“But we’ll do it. It was an amazing night last year. One of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Back in the community centre the cyclists are putting on their yellow capes, helmets and goggles. “We look like Minions,” says Rosie.

“No one will recognise us in all of this,” says her mum. The teenagers look relieved.

“If your goggles steam up, and they will,” says Kate, “just put your thumbs underneath and move them about like little windscreen wipers.”

Back outside they have another run through in their costumes. I particularly like the finale where they all pretend to have crashed and, in slow motion, disentangle themselves, gesticulate to imaginary motorists and celebrate they are unhurt.

It’s show time! Kate leads them all to the market square high-fiving bemused spectators. For the next twenty-five minutes or so I dash from one side of the square to the other as the caped performers entertain the crowd.

It’s a great spectacle that culminates in ‘the crash’ being performed in front of a row of amused police officers. “Come on guys, help them out,” I shout as the riders lie supine.

“We’re not on traffic duty today,” one jokes as he helps himself to Donna’s bike and joins in the fun.

Exhausted and exhilarated everyone returns to the community centre as the dancers start their set.

“That was really good,” says Kate. “Well done everyone.”

“I’m not happy they didn’t arrest that policeman for pinching my bike,” says Donna.