Ten years ago, British brothers Rob and Paul Forkan lost their parents in the Boxing Day tsunami. Surviving the tragedy, these orphans then decided to use their horrendous experience as a chance to help others.
On December 26, 2004, the Forkan family were holidaying Sri Lanka when the tsunami – caused by a 9.1 magnitude earthquake – crashed into their hotel. Miraculously, the two brothers and their two younger siblings survived, however tragically, their parents Kevin and Sandra were swept into the Indian Ocean leaving the four children as orphans with no passports, money, or possessions.
Thankfully, with the help of the Sri Lankans, Rob (then 17) and Paul (then 15) were able to hitchhike 200 miles to the closest airport.
Left with the legacy of their parents, and inspired by their philosophy of helping others, the brothers started Gandys, an ethical footwear company which makes and sells colourful flip-flops to fund projects helping children affected by the tsunami disaster.
Ten years on, the brothers’ company has gone from strength to strength, with the opening of a new centre for children in Mau Gama, near the capital of Colombo.
“For us it’s been a distraction to some degree. Our parents always taught us that if something negative happens, you should try to turn it into a positive.
“Because of all that travelling and volunteering that we did with them, we always saw kids that were in some pretty horrific situations – and obviously we had our own horrific experience – so we’ve tried to continue what we were taught.”
In the past three years, the company has gained huge exposure from high-profile people and celebrities such as Richard Branson, Jessica Alba, and even One Direction.
The brothers were also invited to Buckingham Palace to be personally commended by Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson.
Rob, now 27, said “Amongst all the hard work it’s nice that you get to go and do things like that because that’s what gives you the drive and passion to do what we do.”
“We had that tragic experience but Gandys has enabled us to continue travelling and volunteering doing projects.”
The brothers return to Sri Lanka this week, marking only the second time they’ve returned to the place which holds difficult memories for them. But they are convinced that surviving that day and having the experience of becoming orphans as well as volunteering and seeing the slums in India has enabled them to cope and give back to the community.
“Doing the volunteering work we always saw children worse off than we were,” said Paul, who adds that living through the ordeal and surviving the tsunami has given them a “no fear” approach to life.
“Now we just want to grow Gandys so we can open another centre after this one and then more.”
“All the experiences we had through our parents and what they showed us has given us the values we have today. Our parents always told us to take the positive out of the negative so after the tsunami we were lucky that we had seen kids a lot worse off when we were younger.”
In 2013 alone, Gandys made around $1.8 million, and with more profits more orphans can be given help and assistance which means the brothers are doing a fantastic job in remembering and upholding their parents’ legacy as well as fulfilling their dream of opening children’s homes all over the world.
“It is possible to come through struggles and dark days, and there can be light.
… Our life has been quite crazy. We’re still pretty young. We’ve a long way to do. But if there’s one message from all this, it’s to keep resilient. If you’re persistent about what you’re passionate, you will get there.”
For more information on Gandys and the brothers Orphans for Orphans Project, click here.