Celebrating 20 years of The Christian-Liebig-Foundation
17/04/2023

A lot of gratitude and a little nostalgia

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The Christian Liebig Foundation is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. But this celebration is marked by mixed feelings, as the foundation was established due to a sad cause: In 2003, Beatrice von Keyserlingk's then partner, the Focus journalist Christian Liebig, died in a bomb explosion in an American quarter in Bagdad. He was 35 years old. To counteract the grief with something hopeful, Beatrice established the Christian Liebig Foundation together with Helmut Markwort, former Editor-in-Chief of Focus. The foundation was established in Christian's name and supports educational projects in Africa. In this interview, Beatrice von Keyserlingk, founder, and chairwoman of the board, talks about how this voluntary project has not only changed and impacted her life, but that of many others too. She also explains how Burda has supported her over many years.

Congratulations on the 20th anniversary of the Christian Liebig Foundation. Can you describe in three words how this makes you feel?

Amazed – at how time flies!

Satisfied – we have achieved so much, yet still have many plans.

Proud - of the Christian Liebig Foundation team and everything we have done.

Why did you decide on Malawi when you set up the foundation and how has your voluntary work changed your life?

Interestingly, I first had the idea of working in Africa when I was 7 years old. My grandmother had Africans visiting – I can't remember which country they were from – and I was so fascinated. I decided back then that I would work on this continent. I spoke with Christian about this a lot. What does good development aid look like, how to act in a respectful way and not just hand out charity. But how to make yourself useful and not just act important. We decided on Malawi, as it had been at the top of the list as one of the poorest countries for years, plus its stability and peacefulness appealed to us. Being new to the country, we didn't want to run the risk that one of our projects might be burnt down on completion or that we would suddenly not be able to travel there anymore. And after we had successfully completed the first projects, we had grown so fond of the people and the country that we decided to stay.

My life has changed completely through my work for the foundation. On the one hand, it helped me in the grieving process. I felt deeply connected to Christian through my development aid work, which also gave me a feeling of freedom and meant I could continue with my own life in a more untroubled way. But it was also the time when I felt that I was growing up. I met and continue to meet fantastic people. And I continue to learn new things every day. But all these things would probably have remained a dream, had it not been for Mr. Markwort's support and the support of so many employees throughout Burda's publishing house. From legal assistance to press coverage in the Burda media. And even now, 20 years later, new people within the Burda Group are supporting our cause and standing by us. The connection to Hubert Burda Media is and will remain the most important and ongoing source of support, in all kinds of matters, in the long term.

On the anniversary of Christian's death, 7 April, you visited the mother of the late Spanish journalist Julio Anguita Parrado, who also died with Christian. In honour of his memory, a journalism prize was awarded to the Africa correspondent Gemma Parallada in Córdoba. This must bring back memories of the time when you were happy with Christian and planning a future together in Africa? May I ask you to share some of these? 

We were in contact with Julio's mother directly after the tragic event, but then not again for a long time. Two years ago, she wrote to me again, and so the idea grew to visit her and commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of our loved ones together. Julio's and Christian's friendship was the last one in both their lives, which unites both our families. She was really excited about this and invited me to her home in Córdoba to spend Easter with her.

The journalism prize in Julio's name has been awarded to young journalists for many years now, always on 7 April. Also, this year, when the 7th fell on Good Friday. The prize goes to a journalist, who shows courage and determination, in bringing us live reports from often dangerous situations. 

20 years ago, the death of Julio Anguita Parrado and Christian Liebig, shattered the families' worlds into a “before” and “after.” Where would their journey have taken them? We will never know the answer to this. Julio's and Christian's friendship was the last one in both their lives. Christian had told me about Julio. That he had always lent him his satellite phone for the transmission of his reports, because the American military had banned him from using his, as it was too easy to locate. Both got on well and supported each other in this very difficult situation.

My trip to Spain was very emotional. Julio's mother Antonia had already warned me, that there would be a lot of crying, and I felt the same. I think of Christian a lot. The first few years were very painful. Sometimes the pain just jumped out at me and hit me. Today, I often feel a little nostalgic, but above all I feel gratitude when I think of him. Gratitude for what we can do in his name. I hardly ever have “what-if” thoughts. I am very happy again. Happiness is just a snapshot, but thank God, I have many of these. Often in Malawi, but also here at home. 

Who was there to help you through this heavy stroke of fate and how did you help them through this difficult time?

My family. I have a very close and loving relationship with my father and his wife, and to my siblings. My friends, who were also largely Christian's friends, really supported me and still do today. I was never alone unless I wanted to be. And I was able and allowed to grieve, also with them. I talked about it a lot. That helped me psychologically too: Not to bury myself and only to let myself be depressed for short intervals of time. And Christian´s colleagues and Mr.Markwort were there for me and also for Christian´s parents. 

You work today, as you did then, as a goldsmith, gemstone, and diamond appraiser for a jeweller in Munich. Your employer is and has been a great support of you and your foundation work, which often means trips to Africa. How has your employer been able to support you?

I have the same employer as back then. My colleagues knew Christian and were there when I heard what had happened. My boss takes an interest in the development of the foundation and often donates to the CLS. He is also very understanding when I have to leave at short notice. I try to plan things in advance, so that I can manage my full-time job.

Part of working through grief is learning to let go, so that you can continue with your life and maybe even a new relationship. You´ve been happy with a new partner for five years. How difficult was it to start a new relationship and move on from the past?

You can never really move on with your life, and I don't think that is necessary. My past is an important and happy part of me, that has made me the person I am today. I never felt that I wouldn´t be able to start a new relationship. But I was also happy being single. A relationship must make you happier, than you would be on your own. And that is quite a high aspiration. This was possible with Christian. So, I know, what this should feel like. That is what it is like with my new partner. I can just be myself, without having to pretend to be someone else. And he can also be exactly as he is. Just like with Christian, we had been friends for a long time, and we have a lot of mutual friends. That creates closeness and trust.

Does your new partner support you with your foundation and has he been to Africa with you?

He hasn't accompanied me to Africa (yet) - and he really doesn't have to. These are not pleasure trips. I prefer to go on holiday with him to other places. But he is a great support. He is very interested in our topics and has donated a large amount of money to the Mtakataka girls house and supports my godchild Florence, too, who is now a young lady.

You can be very proud of what you have achieved. Looking back, what is your résumé after 20 years of foundation work? What were the highlights and the setbacks?

A highlight, back then, was most certainly our first project, the CLSS (Christian-Liebig-Secondary School). With this school, we were able to show our vision and prove that our dream was not just a crazy idea. That we had managed to build a school from scratch on dusty terrain in the middle of nowhere. Since then, we have luckily managed to complete every single project. Always in trusting partnership with the respective communities. We don't just make up projects, but work with the local people, to understand what they need and what they can contribute. The girls' dormitory projects really show where we have added the most value – and that is so satisfying. These girls and young women who live there are so much more successful, without a long journey to school, and being in safe housing. The "only“ setbacks we have had, so far, have been in the form of natural events that are out of our control: Droughts, floods, typhoons – like the current “Cyclone Freddy”, in mid-March, which left a trail of destruction with torrential rain in its wake. Here our thoughts are very much with our friends and partners in Malawi, and we try to provide help as unbureaucratically and quickly as possible, together with our local representative Janet Phillips.

This year's anniversary project is the new Liwiro secondary school together with its girls' dormitory, which you plan to visit for its opening, when you travel to Malawi in October. How will the foundation's 20th anniversary be celebrated there?

This year I need to plan in more time for my trip to Malawi. We intend to visit all our larger projects including the CLSS, our flagship project, where we will be celebrating its 20-year anniversary along with the foundation's 20-year anniversary. And hopefully, we will be able to inaugurate our largest single project, since we started the foundation, the Liwiro secondary school. There will, no doubt, be a lot of traditional singing and dancing and everyone will make a lot of speeches in the very hot sun. Usually, the children also recite poetry and prayers and perform plays. You really do always dive into a very different world. And even though I know this world very well, it always remains incredibly exciting.

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Christian Liebig and Beatrice von Keyserlingk were a happy couple with plans for their future – they were planning to marry once Christian had returned from Iraq © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

By establishing the foundation, Beatrice von Keyserlingk hoped to counteract the emptiness with something meaningful after Christian's death © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

The foundation’s first major project was the construction of the Christian Liebig Secondary School, including a dormitory and housing for teachers, in 2003 © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

View of the Christian Liebig Secondary School campus from above © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Education is the key to escaping poverty © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Sleeping safely and learning: 72 girls live here in this house © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

View into one of the rooms of the girls’ dormitory  © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Among the students are divorced young women, who now have the chance to finish school in a safe place thanks to a "back to school" programme, following forced marriages © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

In 2019, the dormitory for 60 girls was renovated and extended - financed, for example, by donations made at the request of Uli Baur, former Focus editor-in-chief, after his death by the guests at his funeral service © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

In the girls’ dormitories and at many of the schools, children receive one hot meal a day as part of their school lunch programme © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

26 elementary schools and 2 secondary schools with girls' dormitories have been built or renovated by the foundation, providing 25,000 children with access to education so far  © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

In 2016, Beatrice von Keyserlingk was awarded the “Service Medal of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany” by Christine Strobl, the former mayor of Munich © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation has focused even more on building wells to supply drinking water and ensure better hygiene © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

The Christian-Liebig-Foundation also supports sustainable permaculture projects © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

In early March, Cyclone Freddy hit Malawi and caused enormous damage: more than 40,000 families lost their homes © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

The stably constructed schools built by the Christian-Liebig-Foundation give shelter and provide food to the people from the surrounding communities © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

A bird's eye view of the anniversary project of the Christian-Liebig-Foundation: the Liwiro secondary school is being built here © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Development aid for children in Africa at eye level - that was Christian Liebig’s vision, which Beatrice von Keyserlingk turned into reality © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Christian Liebig died 20 years ago, on 7. April 2003. He was a foreign correspondent for Focus, reporting on the war in Iraq © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Beatrice von Keyserlingk with her godchild Florence, now 20 years old - the same age as the foundation © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Florence today, at the age of 20: A self-confident woman with a good education and many goals in life © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Beatrice is a professional goldsmith, gemstone, and diamond appraiser © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Beatrice with the mother of the late Spanish journalist Julio Anguita Parrado, who died together with Christian  © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

Providing help for children in Malawi - Beatrice von Keyserlingk looks back at 20 years filled with different experiences, small challenges, and significant achievements © Christian-Liebig-Stiftung e.V.

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