By 1975, Southeast Asia was in turmoil. Communist takeovers in Vietnam and Laos and the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia forced thousands to escape on makeshift boats.
If the refugees survived the journey, what awaited them on land was years spent in overcrowded refugee camps with few resources. Images of the dangers faced by the refugees at sea and the hopelessness of the camps compelled many Canadians into action.
The deep Christian faith of many church denominations, including the Christian Reformed Church, was stirred by these refugees’ stories of suffering. By the late 1970s, faith communities began to lobby the Canadian government to create a program to help settle refugees that would become the foundation for welcoming refugees to Canada for decades to come.
On February 28, 2019, government officials, non-governmental agencies, faith communities, and private citizens, gathered in the Canadian Senate in Ottawa to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program (PSRP), a unique, “made-in-Canada” approach to refugee resettlement. Speeches commemorating this important anniversary were given by Senator Peter Harder, the Representative of the Government in the Senate, former Prime Minister, Joe Clark, and Ahmed Hussen, the current Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, including other government figures.
One attendee in Ottawa who remembers the events of 1979 well is Rev. Arie Van Eek. As the original signee of the Christian Reformed Church’s agreement with the Canadian government, Van Eek was instrumental in organizing the CRC’s response to the refugee crisis. In his role as Executive Secretary of what was then called the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada, Van Eek was responsible for negotiating the CRC’s initial sponsorship agreement with the government.
Van Eek notes that all those involved in the CRC response, from the leadership to deacons to ordinary church members, were motivated by the “strong sense that we could make a difference.” Compelled by faith in God, and with his boundless energy, Van Eek, along with his colleagues, set about organizing the new partnership with the government and recruiting Christian Reformed churches to sponsor refugees.
Though participating in the refugee program and interacting with people from such different cultures was largely an “unknown” for many from the Christian Reformed tradition, Van Eek was convinced that the Christian Reformed Church in particular was uniquely positioned, as a recent immigrant community, to assist refugees in their transition to a new life in Canada. Many church members, as Dutch immigrants to post-World War II Canada, knew firsthand the tragedy of war and the challenges of immigration. As Van Eek says, “We knew about war, being without a home, being without a country.”
Van Eek, along with many others, worked tirelessly in those early, exciting days of the refugee program, and were committed to providing long-term sponsorship to refugees, not just from Southeast Asia, but from other parts of the world as well. By November 1979, the CRC in Canada committed to “a responsive long-term program of refugee sponsorship,” equipping World Renew─then the Christian Reformed World Relief Committeeㅡto continue with the work of refugee resettlement.
When asked about attending the events in Ottawa and honouring those who were involved in welcoming the first refugees under PSRP, Van Eek remains humble. To him, helping refugees was an opportunity for the Christian Reformed community to show “gratitude to God and country for all the opportunities we had been given as immigrants to Canada.”
Rev. Van Eek remains an enthusiastic supporter of World Renew’s efforts to welcome refugees to Canada. Looking back over the last forty years, he is thankful for the over 7000 refugees whose lives were changed, and the commitment shown to refugees by World Renew, the CRC, and partnering church sponsors.
Today, the need for sponsorship is as great as ever with 68 million refugees and displaced people in the world. Despite these overwhelming numbers, Van Eek believes strongly that sponsorship works and that Christians “experiencing and living in freedom in Christ [should] have the energy and desire to help.”
He hopes the success of World Renew’s refugee program will encourage Christians to respond in faith to the plight of refugees, as he says, “You can do it, we did it, so let’s do it again!”
Header photo: Reverend Arie Van Eek with the Honorable Joe Clark, Prime Minister of Canada between 1979 and 1980 in Ottawa to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Canada's Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program
Body photo: Reverend Arie Van Eek with the current World Renew Refugee Program Coordinator, Rebecca Walker