Event 3: Subotica, Serbia

The significance of buttons

Značaj dugmeta

In the afternoon, we drive 2km west of the city to the site of the Buvljak or Ocskapiac Flea Market, one of the largest in Europe. This is where ECR, Edukativni Centar Roma (Education centre for Roma) has its tiny and yet welcoming spaces . . .

In the car park outside, the director of ECR is there to greet us. This is Stevan Nikolic, an inspiring leader of the Roma community and the first appointed Roma Coordinator in the city of Subotica, who continuously works towards seeing the Roma people take an active and equal part in the political, social and academic life of the region.

We warm to him immediately and follow him past market stalls and up some steps to the office above. There waiting for us is a group of about 20 men and women who are Roma and non Roma, all of whom are interested to hear more about these mysterious buttons and the historical and contemporary significance they might have for the group. We write name badges so that we can get to know everyone.

We introduce ourselves and the Every Button Counts project, showing people postcards of the 6 million+ buttons installation. Joanne lays down the coloured cloth.

Stevan introduces the aims of ECR with considerable passion and an almost poetic way with words:

It’s about how we can live together, how to join the ring of power and achieve rights for all.

We cannot enjoy knocking at the door, we want to come in.

We want to live and work together with our neighbours, not side by side.

Inclusion in education is the key to this, to connect ourselves with the wider community.

What we need for this is:

Self respect

Readiness to be active

Readiness to accept others

Readiness to accept what is outside our experience

Without much more talking, we begin the buttons exercise. This group enjoy the process of selecting buttons, laughing and smiling about friends, family members and their characteristics: bright, faded, heavy, glittery. Some people sit on the floor, some stay in their chairs, there is hardly an inch of space to spare.

“I have chosen a star shaped button because it is the name of the nursery where I work. It can represent one of the children.”

“This is my doctor, who has helped me fight cancer.”

“This is my family, the biggest to the smallest, the brightest and oldest.”

“The red button is my mother.”

When everyone is asked to remove buttons and drop them in the small bins, there is genuine distress and emotion. Instantly, people understand the significance of the removal, the fracturing of family, social and national communities.

The younger women, who are assistant teachers, say: “This is also a very good creative activity for children, to help them appreciate who they have in their lives, how we are all connected together and what happens when we reject others.”

Len, who is sponsored by Yorkshire based organisation Creative Scene, is recording the process here in Subotica by taking photos, drawing, painting and writing.

He captures the spirit of this session and indeed our first day here so beautifully:

At the end of the session, Stevan turns to me and says:

When I heard about these buttons I thought “What is this? What do they mean? They are just buttons” but now you have come and done this wonderful process with us, I understand. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it connects the Holocaust of the Jews with the Holocaust of the Roma and all

conflicts where people are blamed and killed because of who they are. It says all of this without words. I would like to keep this post card and this button to remember.