LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When British brothers Rob and Paul Forkan survived the Indian Ocean tsunami 10 years ago that killed both their parents, they knew they had to use their lives to help other children in need.
On Dec. 26, 2004, the then teenagers awoke in a beachside hotel room in Sri Lanka as a wall of water ripped through coastal communities in 14 countries, claiming 230,000 lives.
Their parents, Kevin and Sandra, had taken the brothers and two of their four siblings out of school for four years to travel and volunteer on humanitarian projects in India and were spending Christmas in a fishing village called Weligama.
When disaster struck, the family was split up. Rob and Paul stayed together, clinging to trees, and eventually found younger siblings Matt and Rosie but their parents were swept away.
The siblings hitchhiked their way to safety, despite having no passports and no money, and managed to get a flight back to Britain where they were cared for by one of their elder sisters.
Realizing how lucky they were to survive and to have family to help them, the brothers’ desire to give back led them in 2011 to set up Gandys, an ethical footwear company that makes colorful, funky flip flops from natural materials.
The company, that has gone from strength to strength this year, channels 10 percent of its profits into funding projects for orphans and underprivileged children.
Using this money, bolstered by fund-raising and donations, the brothers are marking the 10th anniversary of one of the most devastating humanitarian disasters in recorded history by opening a center for children in Sri Lanka through their Gandys Foundation that runs their “Orphans for Orphans” mission.
The center in Mau Gama, near the capital Colombo, once completed around February, will provide medical treatment, nutrition and education for about 400 children.
“We want to help children and give them an education,” said Paul, 25, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, pink shorts and flip flops at the company’s office near Wimbledon in south London on a chilly December day.
“It’s been hard work getting it off the ground because at first people thought we were weird for wanting to do good when most fashion brands want to be hot and sexy but things are changing and consumers are becoming more ethical.”
His brother Rob, 27, also in shorts and flip flops, said it has been difficult to grow the company that started from his one-bedroom flat in south London and now employs 15 people.
The idea was sparked when Rob woke up at a music festival saying his “mouth felt like one of Gandhi’s flip-flops”. The spelling was modified and the brand was born.
The rubber flip flops are produced in China with the brothers looking at opening at factory in Sri Lanka too and are sold in some leading Britain’s shops, in Australia, Japan, Dubai, Thailand and a growing list of countries. They hope to expand to the United States soon.
In the past three years the company and the driven, charismatic brothers have won praise and support from British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, Prime Minister David Cameron, and various celebrities including singer Jessie J.
“It is good to see that we are starting to get impact but next year it will be even harder work as that will enable us to do more projects like the one in Sri Lanka,” Rob told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, surrounded by thousands of zany flip flops.
Returning to Sri Lanka next week to check in on their project as the world commemorates that massive loss of lives 10 years ago, will be an emotional journey for the brothers whose story is told in the recently-published book “Tsunami Kids”.
It is only the second time they have returned since the tragedy but they are convinced that surviving that day and the experiences with their parents in India, volunteering in slums and children’s homes, had enabled them to cope.
“Doing the volunteering work we always saw children worse off than we were,” said Paul, adding that living through the tsunami had given them a “no fear” approach to life.
“Now we just want to grow Gandys so we can open another center after this one and then more.”
Additional reporting by Will Russell from Reuters TV , Editing by Lisa Anderson.