Spotlight: ‘The March to Syria took over our lives’

Leen and Matt, a Belgian-South African couple in Belgium co-organised the Civil March for Aleppo, which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In total, 4 000 citizens from 62 countries walked in the march from Berlin to Aleppo. 

Matt: “I always wanted a strong woman next to me. I believe in equality between men and women, but that is very different in South Africa, where I come from. The role patterns have not yet evolved as is the case here, in Belgium. Since Leen organized the Civil March for Aleppo, which lasted 232 days, the equality in our relationship is even more visible than before. It has made our relationship even stronger than it already was. 

“I met Leen when she was in South Africa for research for her thesis year. The professor who she worked with was the mother of my best friend. On one occasion I gave her a lift to the capoeira lessons and the rest is history. (laughs) “

Leen: “We had a long-distance relationship for two to three years. Then I moved to South Africa, but we came to Belgium for the birth of our eldest son. Matt immediately found work here and I started working for the organization Refugee Action Flanders. “

Matt: “While I am a very straightforward person, Leen is extremely forgiving. She always looks for the good in people. That is really her strength and something I admire enormously. I often call her Mother Theresa. (laughs) “

Leen: “Whatever I do as a job, there must always be something of significance. Preferably something creative for myself combined with something that can improve the world. When the terrible images of the bombing of Aleppo reached us, a Polish friend and journalist, Anna Alboth, posted on Facebook: “What would happen if we all walked to Aleppo?” The message was massively shared, liked and in the heat of the moment, Anna wrote, “Let’s do it.” The idea did not let me go. When I woke up the next morning, still thinking about it, I knew: “this is a good action”. We started brainstorming in a private group of about twenty people. In a few days we had a video and a website, and we gathered experts from various countries. It was a spontaneous action of citizens for the suffering of other citizens. But suddenly press from all over the world jumped on it. We came on CNN and received lots of money from celebrities to support our cause. “

Matt: “Even the Pope supported the action. He announced them during a speech at St. Peter’s Square. Leen was part of the core team and invested a huge amount of time in the preparation and giving advice. ” In the hospital Leen: “It took about a month before we could start the march. The route was in the beginning meticulously prepared. In each country we asked for permission as the police had to be aware to guarantee the safety of the participants. Not everyone is happy with a peace march… many countries want the war in Syria to continue, so we had to be very careful. In advance we really calculated the risks of possible attacks. Hungary, for example, we avoided and Turkey eventually too, but that was very complex. The whole organization was far from easy and Matt had to take over a lot at home. “

Matt: “The children are still alive, so it was a success. (laughs) No, it was natural for me to support Leen. She had spent a lot of time already with the children and in the household, now it was my turn to be a house man and to make everything run. You don ‘t choose moments like this, they serve themselves and suddenly your whole world is turned upside down. I have learned that it is okay not to be in the center. Although I still do not like cleaning and washing in my daily life. (laughs) But at that moment it was mainly my mission. And our eldest son, Lennard, thought it was cool what his mum did. “

Leen: “On December 26, 2016, the hike started in Berlin. The plan was to join with the whole family for three weeks, we were already collecting camping gear etc. But then I got an inflammation of the heart and ended up in the hospital. “

Matt: “Even from the hospital and in the rehabilitation, Leen continued to mail, consult and arrange everything.” Leen: “It took over our entire life. Almost day and night we were busy with it and when the hike had started, I did a lot of crisis management. Even when I was in Croatia in March, I could barely walk in the march. Statements had to be written for social media, vision and direction of the march had to be well thought of because so many eyes were focused on us … In advance we really did not know what we were getting into and I do not think that anyone thought that we would be on the road for eight months. The professor who nominated us for the Nobel Prize, says that an action like ours that started so impulsively with so little preparation time, scientifically after one week should have failed.”

Matt: ” It was not easy to keep the March on the right path. They could not afford to have it hack by people with bad intentions. There were a lot of people who went to work during the week and went marching during the weekend, but landed up in conflicts. Sometimes Leen was frustrated about this, but then there were reports from Syrians that the walk gave them so much hope. “

Leen: ” The road to Aleppo was long, very long. When the March finally arrived on August 14 last year, I felt obviously proud, but I had very mixed feelings. The Syrians themselves who the marchers met at the end were not allowed to go to the border and on the way so much happened … In January we had again a meeting with many participants and organizers. That was extremely emotional, and at the same time it laid foundations for new actions, across borders. That the project was nominated for Nobel Prize was a total surprise. At the same time, it is also an enormous opportunity to shed light on the situation again. Do we deserve the nomination…? There are many other organizations that continue to work on trying to solve the war in Syria on a daily basis, who earn such a prize much more than we do. But the nomination itself can be an inspiration for other civil actions. As a citizen we can do much more than we think. ” Power to change

Matt: ” It has also inspired me to think bigger. Leen has a silent power to change things. With the Civil March she finally got a platform and I hope she gets that chance more, because it is so incredibly important at the moment. We should not wait until the political situation gets worse. I can only be proud of everything Leen does, and that we are a family where valuable things happen. “

This article was originally published in Belgian for various news outlets.