Alisa Malki, a rising senior at the University of California at Los Angeles, offers a glimpse into her experience attending the United Nation’s Durban Review Conference.
In April 2009, I was on my way to Geneva, Switzerland to be witness to the UN Durban Review Conference which was intended to evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
Alisa Malki is pictured with a Darfur refugee at the Durban II Conference.
I was there, along with two other American Hillel students, to remember and be a reminder to the purpose of this conference. I was there so issues pertinent to this platform on racism and related human injustices could truly be addressed and voices of survivors could be heard.
The three of us joined our peer delegation from the European Union of Jewish Students to attend a variety of official UN meetings. But the one I will never forget was a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the eve of Yom HaShoah.
That speech provoked a reaction I will likely never see again.
The room was in uproar. People were standing on tables. Everyone was engaged in debate. I watched arguments take place between the Neturei Karta, an extremist group, and fellow students. I saw two French Jewish students in clown wigs and red noses run up to Ahmadinejad in protest. I watched as nearly twenty conference delegates walk out during the speech, which outlined that Zionism "personifies racism" and that Israel was a Nazi regime
It was in the aftermath of this uproar that I realized that the rich dialogue I anticipated from my experience at Durban was not going to come from meetings at the UN. I realized that instead those powerful exchanges were going to occur on the sidewalks outside and in the lounges of our youth hostel.
My first real high came from our newfound alliance with the Darfurians during our protest demanding the UN address the genocide. Our voices hoarse from yelling—we were exhausted and smiling together. It came from the support pledged by the Darfurians that they stand with us and with Israel and our promise that we stand with them to fight until the genocide in Darfur ends. So we can say, without cringing at our guilty consciences, "Never again."
My new friends—in particular Yousef, a forty-three year old Darfurian who had immigrated to Canada wearing a jacket too large for his narrow shoulders, and Ibrahim, a nurse who had immigrated to France—shared their heartrending stories of survival with other Jewish students from around the world and me as we sat in the youth hostel lounge.
Hours later, the two men embraced us with gratitude, hope, and perplexity. They could not understand why a group of Jewish students cared so intensely about their stories and their people that they were willing to stay up all night to listen and to cry.
It was a challenging and emotional week where at times I felt blood-boiling anger and felt hopelessness. But I also came away with a newfound compassion, a redefined Jewish identity, and a new lens with which I am able to see the world. Sometimes what I have learned is too overwhelming to think about.
While these stories permeate my consciousness in a world where it is permissible to ignore the inhumanity that exists everywhere, I carry the faces of Ibrahim and Yousef in my heart and in my mind. I know as a Jewish human being I am not obligated to complete the task, yet I am not free to withdraw from it. (Rabbi Tarfon)
A condensed version of this student reflection essay appeared in the June 2009 issue of Passport Newsletter.