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

At the end of the Second World War, the Protestant Church Federation launches an appeal to the population for donations to help the needy in war-torn Europe. The solidarity is enormous, over two million francs are raised. What then turns out to be more challenging is making rapid and proper use of funds for emergency aid and reconstruction. Given the scale of the task, the churches need their own dedicated space for organising and coordinating relief efforts. On 1 January 1946 Swiss church Aid is born. No-one thinks of a permanent agency at this juncture.
Die Geschichte vom HEKS


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.

HEKS-Geschichte 1944-1954
Otto Stork


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.

HEKS-Geschichte 1954-1960
Samuel Andres


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.

HEKS Geschichte 1961-1969
HEKS Archiv


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.

HEKS Geschichte 1970-1979
HEKS Archiv


Stronger commitment to the cause of refugees in Switzerland

These years are marked by major developments in refugee and asylum-related matters. As a result of a steady influx of refugees, the HEKS/EPER refugee service evolves into its biggest department. HEKS/EPER regional offices are set up during the first half of the 1980s to organise the admission and care of refugees, mostly from South-East Asia. And to assist refugees and asylum seekers in word and deed, the first advice centres for asylum seekers open their doors in 1984. Through referenda and silent vigils HEKS/EPER publicly opposes the growing intensification of the asylum debate and the tightening of policy. Outside of Switzerland, HEKS/EPER supports programmes for refugees and displaced people in southern Africa, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lebanon, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the Philippines. In 1986, HEKS/EPER unilaterally severs its ties with the Union of Swiss Banks, provoking angry reactions from the Swiss public. Based on concrete project experience in South Africa, HEKS/EPER takes a public stand against the renowned bank for its deliberate circumvention of the UN embargo. In 1988 HEKS/EPER launches Eastern Europe day, which is now observed annually.
HEKS Geschichte 1980-1989
HEKS Archiv


Major changes in Eastern Europe, Balkan War and expanded mandate in Switzerland

In the aftermath of the Cold War, projects in Eastern Europe are completely reoriented. These years are marked by reconstruction in former East Bloc countries and large-scale emergency aid during the Yugoslav Wars. In Romania, for example, in addition to interchurch aid, a regional rural development programme begins to take shape. HEKS/EPER participates in emergency aid and reconstruction projects in Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo. Tens of thousands of refugees enter Switzerland – many of whom will later be supported by HEKS/EPER through projects to advise and support them in Switzerland, as well as to prepare for their return. In 1991 the Federation of Churches extends the HEKS/EPER mandate in Switzerland, tasking it with «Advocacy for the socially disadvantaged». As a result and in collaboration with the Birseck housing project for people suffering from addiction, HEKS/EPER establishes its first project for socially disadvantaged Swiss citizens and mounts projects for the integration of unemployed people. HEKS/EPER provides emergency aid in the wake of the genocide in Rwanda. Besides, HEKS/EPER coordinates international election monitoring by churches in South Africa and Mozambique. In Latin America, HEKS supports agrarian reform and champions the cause of the landless.
HEKS Geschichte 1990-1996
HEKS Archiv


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.

HEKS Geschichte 1997-2007
Annette Boutellier

2010–to date

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.

HEKS-Fotoreportage Serbien-Kroatien
András D. Hajdú