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Serbian Project with the Budapest Worship Group, 2006-7.

by Catherine Butler.


   In June 2005 I went for the first time to the Central European Regional Meeting, held under the auspices of FWCC, Europe and Middle East Section.  That year the Meeting was in Tacsony, Hungary, and there I met participants from all over the region and  made many new friends, in particular members of the Budapest Worship Group; I had started learning Hungarian because of therapy work with a Holocaust survivor from Budapest, and that gave me a further connection.  I was invited to return, and had a place to stay at any time with Vera Varady from the group.  Vera is from Novi Sad in Vojvodina, northern Serbia, and has lived in Budapest for many years, though she still has a flat, and family, in Novi Sad.  Zsuzsa Eastland, the convenor, shared with me the first stirrings of a concern, shared with the group, to visit Vojvodina, which sees few visitors from outside Serbia, and to ‘extend the hand of friendship’ there.  I joined in this concern, and have been involved in the group’s process and action in this matter ever since.
   We began with a ‘study tour’ of Vojvodina in early 2006, visiting towns and villages, and thereby increasing our understanding and contacts.  Throughout the area, and in the northern part especially, there are many ethnic Hungarians, whose families have been settled here for 250 years or more: the region was formerly part of Hungary.  Many other ethnicities apart from Serbian are present - it is said there are at least 32 - including Roma.  Since the 90’s refugees from Bosnia have settled here as well, and there has been some tension between these and the long-time, long-integrated inhabitants.  
   Later in 2006, a small group returned to Novi Sad, was given hospitality by Vera at her flat, and worked for a week (in temperatures up to 40 degrees!) with the Ecumenical Humanitarian Organisation there, which is staffed by people from many ethnic groups, churches, and faiths. EHO run many projects locally such as clothing distribution and medical services to Roma settlements (one of which we visited), AIDS information, day-centres for the elderly and those with learning difficulties.  As well as learning much ourselves, we had interest in Quakerism here (I had brought pamphlets and Advices and Queries for enquirers), and in the autumn the doctor from EHO and a couple from Kishegyes village came to Meeting for Worship in Budapest. 
   This year we were invited by the people of Kishegyes (Hungarian)/Mali Idjos (Serbian) to come and help them at the initiation of improvement projects in the village.  With the co-operation of Quaker Voluntary Action we organised a workcamp (April 2007) involving 6 Young Friends from Britain and the Netherlands, volunteers of the same age from EHO in Novi Sad (Serbian) and Kishegyes (ethnic Hungarian), and Zsuzsa and myself. We had financial support from Hall Green Meeting and Netherlands YM to fund the Serbian volunteers, and Alton PM paid my expenses for the time at the workcamp.  From Budapest,   Zsuzsa and I and the Young Friends set off by train for Vojvodina. where no YF’s had gone before…
   Upon our arrival in Kishegyes, we were given a warm welcome by the mayor and people of the village, and we sang ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ to them.  We stayed in their homes, were given a magnificent bonfire and outdoor meal with the villagers, taught to paint Easter eggs - as well as working together on the renovation and planting projects. We began each day with a period of worship in the open air, in which some of the Serbians joined. We visited the local school, and some classes came to visit us in the playground/park where we were working.  Friendships were quickly formed among all the volunteers, and it was a great learning experience for the Young Friends – and the two older ones.  We had an affectionate farewell from our hosts and fellow workcampers (three YF’s are already returning later this year). We continued with a further two days in Vukovar, Croatia, just over the border, seeing the devastation still apparent from the conflicts of the 90’s, and hearing about trauma and reconciliation work there by a Quaker doctor, Charles Tauber. 
   I have recently (June) returned from Central European Regional Meeting held for the first time in Poland (Poznan, where there are now two Friends); we (Zsuzsa and I) discussed the Vojvodina project with EMES representatives, and considered further development and outreach. A dozen local people joined us in a talk by Julia Ryberg on our Woodbrooke-on-the-Road theme ‘Quaker Spirituality’; the whole event supported fellowship and shared worship and learning among the Central European groups and isolated individual Friends.
   I am grateful to Southampton and Portsmouth MM and Alton PM for continuing to help me with funding for this work with the Budapest Worship Group.