Forkan brothers survived the 2004 tsunami and launched a philanthropic flip flop sensation

It is hard to believe that next month marks the 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami - one of the most devastating humanitarian disasters in recorded history that claimed the lives of 230,000 people across 14 countries.

For Rob and Paul Forkan, two young men whose grandfather, Jim Forkan, hailed from Swinford, the anniversary is incredibly meaningful.

On that day on December 26, 2004, the then teenage boys awoke in their beach side rooms in Sri Lanka to the seemingly impossible reality of a tsunami and the roaring, frightening chaos that the wall of water wreaked on the coastal communities it hit.

Rob and Paul lost both of their parents, Kevin and Sandra, in the disaster, and set of on an incredible journey of survival to make it back to England, with their younger brother (12 ) and sister (eight ), whom their parents had heroically managed to get to safety on the roof before they themselves were lost in the waters.

Now, a full decade on, the Forkan brothers are marking the 10th anniversary by realising their most cherished dream - building a camp for disadvantaged children in Sri Lanka through their humanitarian foundation called Orphans for Orphans.

The pair have also just launched a new book charting the remarkable upbringing that brought them to Sri Lanka on that fateful day, and the inspirational decisions they have taken in the intervening 10 years to somehow weave a story of hope and renewal from the loss they suffered.

Rob and Paul were in Dublin last week for the Irish launch of Tsunami Kids and Rob spoke to the Mayo Advertiser about how their parents’ passionate determination to follow their dreams, no matter how unconventional, inspired the brothers to do likewise and create a hugely successful, multinational, footwear brand in the process.

It was in 2011 that Kevin and Sandra Forkan, both social entrepreneurs who worked in the fashion industry, made a decision Rob admits would seem “a little bit crazy” to most parents.

They took their four young children Rob, Paul, Mattie and Rosie, then aged 13, 11, nine, and five, out of the traditional school system in the UK, sold the family home in Croydon, and embarked on a near four-year odyssey of cultural adventure and philanthropy.

“It was incredible, very free spirited,” says Rob. “My dad just said ‘let’s go and experience life’.”

The family spent much of their time in India, carrying out humanitarian work.

“It was that unique upbringing and the values and vision instilled in us as children that made us work so hard towards finding our silver lining, towards overcoming adversity,” says Rob.

“Hopefully other people will be able to draw some kind of inspiration from that and see that there is always hope.”

The family were swept up in the Indian Ocean tsunami when Rob’s parents decided to spend Christmas 2004 in a small fishing village called Weligama in Sri Lanka.

“We celebrated Christmas by the beach and then woke up to the Boxing Day tsunami,” remembers Rob. “Our bedroom was five or 10 yards from the beach.”

The confusion and chaos when the tsumani struck is impossible to describe, he said. He tries now not to think too much about the terrible and desperate fight for life in the immediate aftermath.

“We had no idea what was going on. Even if you did know [what a tsunami was], you wouldn’t have been able to put it together because there was so much going on and it was hard to figure it out.”

The brothers were at first separated from the rest of their family and they survived the initial impact “with great difficulty”.

“We climbed on roofs, holding on to trees, anything we could,” describes Rob. “We found our youngest brother within an hour and then found our younger sister. Somehow we all managed to stick together and survive.”

The young, orphaned, siblings, with no money or passports, used all of the skills they had developed while travelling the world to hitch-hike their way, battered, weary and heartbroken at their loss, to the airport 200 kilometres away. They were eventually repatriated to the UK, where their two older sisters took them in and cared for them.

The brothers were determined to follow in their parents’ footsteps. They wanted to devote themselves to something about which they were passionate, and which was underpinned by strong philanthropic ideals.

They came up with the idea for Gandys, a trendy flip flop brand made from natural materials.

Part of the proceeds of the company would be used to help disadvantaged children, and the charity Orphans for Orphans was born.

Their dream was to generate enough funds to some day open a series of camps for orphaned and disadvantaged children in the developing countries in which they had travelled (often in flip flops ) with their parents.

The business was started in 2012 from their bedroom. After bucket loads of hard work, determination, and knocking on doors, their brand, and the amazing story behind it, began to gain some traction.

“A lot of people started to see us in the media and hear about what we were doing and liked the idea,” says Rob.

The footwear has attracted serious celebrity endorsements too. Richard Branson, One Direction, and Jessic Alba are all firm fans of Gandys, and the flip flops are now stocked in many leading retail outlets across the world, including Top Man, Selfridges, Liberties, and House of Fraser.

“We didn’t start with the idea to create a big business,” says Rob. “We just wanted to design cool products, travel, and do something sustainable and meaningful.”

Last year the brothers returned to Sri Lanka for the first time since 2004, and located a site for their first Orphans for Orphans camp. “It was very emotional,” says Rob. “But it also gave us the inspiration to keep battling to do what we are doing.”

The brothers will be returning to Sri Lanka once again on the 10th anniversary of the tsunami to begin building work on the camp, which they hope will give something back to the people and children of that country who helped them in their most desperate time of need.

Over the coming months, the Forkans are going to be busier than ever, with the publication of their book, working on their first children’s camp, and launching Gandys into seven new countries.

However Rob says connecting with their Mayo roots - a place the brothers have yet to visit - is still something he plans to do in the not-too-distant future.

“I want to get the time to visit but I don’t want to have any work commitments when I do, so I can go and really enjoy a long weekend and take it in,” he says.

Tsunami Kids is available now in Easons and other book shops nationwide.

For more information on Rob and Paul, Gandys, and Orphans for Orphans, visit www.gandysflipflops.com

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