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.

“I’ve never seen that in our town before.”

I’ve dug out my thermals. The Met Office app says it feels like -7. It’s not wrong.

The Weeping Sisters are already leaning against the neo-classical façade of Huddersfield railway station as our procession gathers.

“Your ‘sister’ looks very different from when I saw her last,” I say to Joanne who is here with her daughter Iris.

“We’ve done a lot haven’t we? She looks lovely, and it’s great to see the two ‘sisters’ together. We had a rehearsal on Saturday and it was good to meet the Bosnian women who’ve been working on theirs.”

Adam from the 6million+ charity gathers us together for a briefing. “Thanks everyone for coming, it’s wonderful that you are all here. It’s a cold night but it’s better than wind and rain. Okay, this is the plan…”

For the last couple of months 6million+ has partnered with Creative Scene and local people to create these two Weeping Sisters, representing the suffering of the Holocaust and of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.

The idea is to make a massive visual impact ahead of this evening’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations at the University. Judging by the number of onlookers we’re attracting, it’s doing just that.

“They look terrific,” I say to Jasmina who is standing under Hava – our Bosnian ‘sister’ – with her own daughter, 20-year-old Melissa.

“Yes. We’re very proud of what we’ve done in such a short time,” Jasmina says.

“She’s put in such a lot of work,” says Melissa as the samba band strikes up with a mournful beat.

It’s time. Alan leads us past the taxi rank towards the bus station where our procession officially begins. “Watch that bollard,” says one of the stewards to Kitty, our Jewish ‘sister’ as we pass SpecSavers.

“It’s amazing,” says Creative Scene’s Parveen, “just watching people’s reactions. They catch sight of us, stop, and try to figure out what’s going on. They’re transfixed.”

We’re joined by the Mayor outside the Plumbers Arms who, like everyone else, whips out his mobile and takes a few snaps. A trio of singers from the University, led by lecturer Ben Spatz, sing a Jewish lament. With Medina on the accordion, a group from the Bosnian community reply with a melancholic song about estranged lovers.

And then we’re off again, across the dual carriageway and towards the shopping area.

Outside VapeSuite I put my tape recorder in front of two women who’ve just been handed one of our leaflets. “It’s for Holocaust Memorial Day,” I tell them.

“It’s really nice of them to do that,” says one.

“I’ve never seen that happen before… not in our town anyway,” says the other.

As we pass down King Street hairdressers stand with clients in their doorways, scissors in hand; restaurant staff and diners peer from their windows.

Outside Boots I say hello to a woman ladened with bags and clutching her shopping trolley. “I was on my way to the bus station,” explains Shirley, “but then I saw this. It’s very interesting. I’d rather get cold and watch this than go home. It doesn’t happen every day.”

After an hour our procession reaches the University for the main event. We’re relieved to be in the warm. “How was that?” I ask Jasmina.

“Very special,” she says, “but very cold. It reminded me of being in Croatia, after we’d fled Bosnia. It was snowing. It was so, so cold and we were sleeping outside for 23 days. It was horrible.”

As the giant figures are dismantled to negotiate the doorway I notice Shirley following behind with her shopping. Still not on her way home.

“We really haven’t learnt anything.”

“Have you done anything like this before?” I ask Iris.

“No, never,” she says, continuing to cut holes in the material.

“But you’d like to do more, wouldn’t you?” says her mum Joanne.

CS_120117_600-EditI’ve come to document the creation of the second ‘Weeping Sister’ for the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in a couple of weeks time. This ‘Sister’ – another giant carnival-type figure –  is based on a Jewish woman from the Lublin Ghetto.

Her sibling is being made by members of the Bosnian community over in Batley. Tonight we’re at the Howlands community centre in Dewsbury where Iris and Joanne are mucking in with Neil from the 6 million+ charity and Creative Scene’s Parveen, all under the supportive eye of costume designer Naomi.

CS_120117_637-Edit“We normally have more here,” Parveen explains kneeling on the floor, ironing, “I think the threat of the snow has put people off this evening.

“We’ve finished the papier mâché hands and face,” she says, “and last week we chose the fabrics. So tonight we’re starting on the construction. This is going to be her apron.”

CS_120117_645-EditLike the Bosnian ‘Sister’, Naomi has lots of photographic references and has sketched out a design. “When the ghettos were first created people looked quite smart,” she explains, tapping one photograph and then another, “but, many months later, before they were deported to the camps, their clothes had pretty much disintegrated.”

“The contrast between the two is really quite stark and emotional,” says Parveen. “Towards the end the figures all have lifeless eyes and look like skeletons – they don’t know what’s ahead of them – it’s really quite haunting.”

“Our figure will have an overcoat, a blouse and a long skirt,” says Naomi, “She would have been cold so there are lots of layers. And remember the wind has to pass through it…”

“So it’s not like a sail?” I say, referring to last week’s discussion.

“Yes, so we’ve cut holes in the overcoat and covered them with a netting and disguised that with patches of fabric.”

Joanne and her 14-year-old daughter are placing squares of fabric around each hole. “It might be nice to lay out those squares more randomly,” suggests Naomi.

“All higgledy piggledy?” says Iris.

“Exactly.”

CS_120117_681-Edit“Have you learnt anything new about the Holocaust, from doing this project?” I ask no one in particular.

“When you think about the Holocaust you obviously think about Germany, don’t you?” says Joanne. “But being involved in this has made me realise that atrocities are still going on. It makes you think, doesn’t it?”

CS_120117_668-Edit“We haven’t got much better at tolerating difference,” says Parveen as she lays out the giant apron. “Even in this country, there is still discrimination against people who are different. When I think of some attitudes towards refugees and people who are not like us, we really haven’t learnt anything.”

Joanne and Iris are now sewing netting to the holes in the overcoat. “It’s like nailing jelly to a wall,” says Joanne.

“On the night we’ll need volunteers to carry the figure through Huddersfield, would you be up for it?” he asks Joanne.

“I could do a hand,” says Joanne, “if no one else wants to.”

“You could do the other hand,” I suggest to Iris, “or you could do one between you.”

“That would be nice,” Joanne says to her daughter, “we could do one together.”

The Weeping Sisters, accompanied by a ‘mournful’ samba band, will process through Huddersfield on Thursday, 26th January ahead of the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration at the University from 7.15pm. The procession starts at the Bus Station at 6.20pm.