Dispatch from Durban

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA--I'm halfway around the globe, in the midst of an exhausting, inspiring culture shock.

I'm working in the NGO Forum, a collection of non-governmental organizations, and trying to influence the UN World Conference on Racism. Gathered here is an awesome mix of races and nationalities, groups we scarcely hear about in the United States, like the Travelers, Tamil, Roma and Dalit.

The Travelers, for instance, are a nomadic group in Ireland of approximately 25,000. The Dalits are an Indian minority group, blocked by the caste system from economic mobility and political, educational and religious freedoms. A woman named Mangala is a one-person delegation for refugees from Bhutan, a tiny country in the Himalayas.

All seek to be included in both NGO Forum and UN documents against racism that will stand for another decade.

Like thousands of others, I naively expected an orderly forum for the exchange of ideas, only to find disorganization, finger-pointing and disappointment among participants by the second day of our six-day NGO meeting. Workshops are a 10 to 20 minute taxi ride away, difficult to find, and nearly impossible to understand when translation is not provided. Documents are hard to come by. Our accommodations are 30 kilometers outside of town, requiring a 30-minute bus ride there and back. Compared to the UN conference, the NGO Forum is underfunded and understaffed.

But amazing things are happening here. The grassroots work is inspiring, and well worth the scrimping and saving, begging and borrowing it took to get here. In spite of all the logistical challenges, a document is being hammered out through hours of discussion, daily demonstrations, nightly vigils and passionate, nose-to-nose debate.

Issues that receive only marginal exposure in the United States are center stage at the NGO Forum: racism against Palestinians, the lingering impact of the "historical past" (a UN euphemism for imperialism, colonialism and slavery), equal rights for the 150 million people in migration, and reparations for the victims of slavery and colonialism. At home, globalization is cast as exciting new trade opportunities for U.S. businesses. Here, it's called Westernization, an undermining of non-Western social structures and cultures.

The NGO document we seek is now three days overdue. We all await the outcome, hoping for a text containing language that we can leverage in the many battles against racism waiting for us at home.

Influencing the UN conference's work on racism is another matter entirely. We NGOs are mutually marginalized by limited passes and little access to voting delegates. First we stood in the NGO line for over six hours to get our photo IDs. When some people cut in line, a mini-riot was averted by a courageous individual who stepped in to personally issue hundreds of hand-written numbers so the queue could proceed with dignity. Then we waited another hour or two for another pass to the actual proceedings.

Inside the UN conference, the color and exuberance of the NGO Forum is replaced by slow, somber proceedings conducted mostly by men in dark suits. Corporate sponsorship is evident, and the work of the World Bank is promoted from the plenary podium. The real work goes on in the committee meetings, where our participation is restricted. Veterans of these conferences tell us to corner delegates in the halls, cafes and even the bathrooms.

When we do get into committee meetings, a year's worth of preparation is vulnerable to the complexities of regional politics, national interests and the influence of a few powerful nations like the United States. We are winning minor concessions on key migrant and refugee issues, but most of it remains unresolved.

The U.S. delegation left yesterday. Reaction is a mix of anger, shame and indifference. It was obvious the United States was never serious about this conference; its delegates came late, never took their seats and left early. U.S. taxpayers should be refunded the cost of their fancy hotels and business class tickets.

We may not be able to change world politics this year, but we ourselves have been changed. We have been inspired and strengthened by our international counterparts. Our databases and e-mail lists have been enriched. We know better who our allies are in the fight against racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.

Our delegation will return to press the United States to finally ratify the UN Convention for the Rights of Migrant Workers and their families. Our struggle continues.

Lillian Galedo is chair of the Filipino Civil Rights Advocates at the UN World Conference on Racism. She is also a member of the Immigrant Rights Working Group.

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