HEKS/EPER – History
HEKS/EPER has championed the cause of needy and disadvantaged people for 75 years now. Over the decades, church aid and reconstruction work in war-torn and severly impoverished post-war Europe became a worldwide commitment to a more humane and just world – and HEKS/EPER evolved into a professional aid agency that supports over a million people through its projects.
An aid agency takes shape
Interchurch reconstruction aid
The accomplishments of the initial years are extraordinary: in the first two years alone, some 4000 tonnes of clothing, shoes, blankets, soap, canned products, potatoes and other in-kind donations from Swiss church parishes are sent to neighbouring countries. HEKS/EPER organises emergency meals for children and the elderly, establishes orphanages and children’s homes, sends raw cotton to be processed into bed linen and donated to refugees and hospitals. HEKS/EPER facilitates holidays in Switzerland for war children, supplies emergency church structures (Barackenkirchen) to war-ravaged places abroad and sets up an agency for theological literature. HEKS/EPER establishes «Casa Locarno» in Ticino as a place of recovery and encounter for people from the most diverse national and religious backgrounds: in the first 20 years, some 5000 people from 36 countries visit the facility. During the Cold War, HEKS/EPER also supports the ecclesiastic and diaconal work of church parishes in Eastern Europe and launches the first church parish partnerships. In 1949, HEKS/EPER takes over the Protestant refugee aid service Evangelische Flüchtlingshilfe in Switzerland and in 1951 created a home for the elderly in Weesen for Protestant refugees from Eastern Europe.
Start of international development aid
The colonised countries in Africa and Asia are winning their struggles for political independence. HEKS/EPER expands its activities to these continents and provides emergency relief in Algeria, sends donated clothing to Iran and Jordan, and donates books and scholarships for students in Asia. Collections undertaken by cantonal churches serve to launch the first development project in the South – a training workshop for toolmakers in southern India. HEKS/EPER subsequently helps to set up Protestant secondary schools in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and launches its first programmes in Haiti and Argentina. In 1956, more than 200 000 Hungarians flee their country and some 10 000 are granted asylum in Switzerland. This is the first emergency situation to confront the HEKS/EPER Refugee Service and it organises the reception and care of 2000 Hungarian Protestant refugees.
Large-scale aid programmes
In the space of two years, churches and aid organisations in Switzerland raise 15.7 million francs for HEKS/EPER development aid projects and Protestant missions through «Bread for Brethren» (later to become «Bread for All»). IT is meant to be a one-off collection. But it soon becomes apparent that church funds will be needed every year if «Advocacy for the disadvantaged» is to prove more than just empty words. In addition, Reformed and Catholic Churches join forces for the first time to implement an aid programme for the victims of the Biafra war through Joint Church Aid. Besides, by supporting the «Delta Ministry» project in the US State of Mississippi, HEKS/EPER also takes a stand in favour of equal rights for African-Americans in the USA.
Disaster relief and development policy
HEKS/EPER becomes more political, with an increasing focus on issues of justice, asylum, war and peace. HEKS/EPER steps up its development-related communication in Switzerland and takes up the cudgels behalf of population groups oppressed by racism and apartheid and supports them in their struggles for equal rights in Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa. HEKS/EPER participates in the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism and is sharply criticised for it. After years of providing emergency aid in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, HEKS/EPER also launches into reconstruction work. In addition, HEKS/EPER lobbies in Switzerland for the admission of more refugees from Indochina and supports them in becoming integrated in Switzerland. These years witness an expansion of relations with charities, human rights groups and grassroots movements in order to further the work of development. In the wake of disastrous flooding in North Africa and Eastern Europe, earthquakes in Turkey and Peru as well as a storm surge in Pakistan, HEKS/EPER also establishes its own disaster relief service.
Stronger commitment to the cause of refugees in Switzerland
Major changes in Eastern Europe, Balkan War and expanded mandate in Switzerland
Emergency aid, reorientation of work in Switzerland, greater focus
With increasing frequency HEKS/EPER provides assistance in the wake of natural disasters and armed conflicts. The year 2005 stands out for disasters: HEKS/EPER launches a large-scale reconstruction project in Sri Lanka following the tsunami in Asia and provides emergency aid after disasters caused by adverse weather in Romania, southern Mexico, Guatemala, Kashmir, Niger and South Sudan. In Switzerland, HEKS/EPER lost the federal mandate for refugee support in 2001. In terms of content, there is a shift towards legal aid as well as integration and employment projects for migrants and socially disadvantaged people. There is an ever greater tightening of strategic focus and increasing professionalisation. HEKS/EPER begins to introduce country programmes so as to better focus its international work in terms of content and geography. In 2004, the HEKS/EPER Association is converted into a foundation. In 2008, the «Aid donations» Christmas initiative is launched and is still a success to this day.
Refugee movements, corona and merger with «Bread for All»
The year 2015 sees more than 60 million refugees on the move throughout the world, many attempting to reach Europe by dangerous routes. HEKS/EPER supports refugees in countries of first asylum like Lebanon, as well as in northern Iraq and along refugee routes in the Balkans, especially in Serbia. In 2016 HEKS/EPER launches the nationwide campaign entitled «Taking a stand»: a broad coalition of aid agencies, social institutions and private persons urges lawmakers and the general public to show greater solidarity, to engage in a constructive discussion of the topic of refugees and to adopt a humane asylum policy. In the spring of 2020 the new covid-19 virus throws the world out of joint. Losing little time, HEKS/EPER launches a massive emergency aid programme in Switzerland and in its project countries to assist those being most severely impacted by the crisis. In 2019 the Boards of Trustees of HEKS/EPER and «Bread for All» decided on the merger of both aid agencies as of 2022.