Brothers orphaned by Indian Ocean tsunami return to help rebuild Sri Lanka

Paul and Rob Forkan used the loss of their parents in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami as motivation to start a charitable initiative. Their school for underprivileged village children opened last year in Sri Lanka, and they hope to open more around the world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 12:47pm

The days leading up to Christmas are usually times of joy, yet for a few years, it was anything but for Paul Forkan and his five siblings. The British family lost their parents, Kevin and Sandra, to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami during a holiday in Sri Lanka. But four years ago, Paul and his elder brother Rob decided to overcome the tragedy and make Christmas a happy time again. They came up with the idea of selling flip flops with the goal of building a kids campus in memory of their parents in time for the tsunami’s 10th anniversary.

Let’s not beat ourselves up about them dying, let's do something positive
Paul Forkan

Last Christmas, the dream became a reality with the opening of Gandys Kids Campus, in the small village Mau Gama (or Mother’s Village) near Colombo. Forty students attend the preschool everyday, taking part in activities ranging from English and maths lessons to sports and social clubs. The school is also planning to offer English lessons to the village’s adults soon.

The campus cost £150,000 (HK$1.7 million) to build, and the funds were raised by the Forkans’ smart business moves: they began by just selling flip flops, then moved onto designing and manufacturing their own in a factory in China. They’ve sold more than 200,000 pairs in seven countries since.

“Our parents always taught us to take the positive out of the negative,” says Paul, during a recent trip to Hong Kong to meet his local Gandys distributor. “We thought, ‘Let’s not beat ourselves up about them dying, let's do something positive.”

In Gandys’ first year in 2012, 10,000 pairs were sold; in 2013, 50,000, and in 2014, 150,000. Today, the flip flops are stocked at popular department stores such as Topshop and Selfridges – the brothers are also looking into investors for a five-storey concept store in London – and have been worn by celebrities such as One Direction and Jessica Alba. The Forkans have come a long way since the days when they took product shots in a bathtub in Rob’s apartment in London.

The brothers’ success caught the eye of Britain’s leaders and royalty. They’ve shown up at the House of Lords and Downing Street in Gandys.

“We just wear them all the time,” says Paul. “People thought we were crazy because we would turn up to business meetings in them, even through the winter.”

But to the Forkans, flip flops are more than just footwear; it is a symbol of their freedom, which was instilled in them by their parents.

Kevin and Sandra had six children – Marie, 32; Jo, 30; Rob, 28; Paul, 26, Matthew, 23; and Rosie, 19. They enjoyed travelling and wanted their children to experience other cultures. So, in 2001, after selling the family home in Croydon, South London, the couple took their four youngest children out of school and headed for India, a place they’d fallen in love with on a previous holiday. Each family member packed only one backpack. There, they volunteered for humanitarian projects.

Just before Christmas 2004, the Forkans flew south to Sri Lanka’s south coast for a holiday at the Neptune Hotel in the small fishing town of Weligama. They had a wonderful Christmas Day. Little did they know what would come the following day.

Paul, then 15, and Rob were sharing a room. Just after 8.30am, they heard screams outside. Water began trickling under the door, and suddenly the full force of the tsunami hit, a six-metre wave destroying the hotel.

Rob managed to get out of the room and onto the roof, dragging Paul with him. Nearby, while making sure Matty and Rosie got to safety, Rob’s parents were swept away by the water. Kevin was 54 and Sandra, 40.

Bruised, battered, exhausted, barefoot and traumatised, the siblings hitchhiked nearly 200km to the international airport in Colombo.

“We’re quite lucky we’d been in India and seen people a lot worse off than us. We’d toughened up a lot. Our parents always told us if you get knocked off your bike, just get back on it,” says Paul.

Getting back to life in Britain was tough for the siblings, and they were constantly stalked by press. Rob went off travelling to deal with it.

At school, Paul had the worst results. After training as a plumber, he travelled the world for a year, then moved to Australia at age 18, where he did various jobs to get by. “When I lived in Australia, I never told anyone and didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want attention to my sob story,” says Paul.

One morning in 2011, after a heavy night at a music festival, Rob woke up with a terrible hangover and said that he had “a mouth like Gandhi’s flip-flop”. That was not only the beginnings of the brothers’ business idea, but also of the brand name. Paul returned to Britain, and their company launched in late 2011.

The Gandys logo has a kingfisher to signify India’s national beer Kingfisher, which was also Kevin’s favourite beer. There’s also a footprint representing Sandra’s favourite poem, Footprints in the Sand.

Still, the brothers kept their past a secret, but soon a British newspaper managed to dig up their history and ran a big story. Before long, Rob and Paul were known as “The Tsunami Kids” and “Orphan Sole Brothers”.

“So we thought, ‘Oh well, now that it’s out there we might as well just be positive about it and use it as a force for good, to inspire young people.’” Paul says. Gandys’ charitable initiative, Orphans for Orphans, was born, with the aim of supporting children in need with basic essentials such as nutrition, medication, education and a safe place to live.

Paul says the plan is to build another school in Africa or Thailand, and eventually have Gandys kids projects all over the world. In the meantime, they’re expanding beyond flip flops to offer Gandys trainers, beach towels, bags, swim wear, sunglasses and other items. Paul is also working on extending the brand’s global reach.

“We know that we won’t ever be able to replace our parents,” Paul says, “but one thing we have learned is that their spirit and values will always be instilled in us – and now in Gandys and the homes that we build and hopefully the children that we are able to help.”