When Frank Seevaratnam left Sri Lanka for Canada in 1975—a wife, a daughter and three pounds ten in his pocket—he did not plan to ever return. It was the Indian Ocean tsunami that swept him back three decades later. Watching scenes of unthinkable destruction and grief flash across television screens, Frank, now comfortably settled in [...]


In tsunami-hit Komari, he found purpose in life

Living in Canada since 1975, 83-year-old Frank Seevaratnam recalls how the 2004 disaster brought him back to Sri Lanka and became a turning point in his life to put his religious beliefs into action

When Frank Seevaratnam left Sri Lanka for Canada in 1975—a wife, a daughter and three pounds ten in his pocket—he did not plan to ever return. It was the Indian Ocean tsunami that swept him back three decades later.

Watching scenes of unthinkable destruction and grief flash across television screens, Frank, now comfortably settled in Toronto, felt a compulsion to board a flight. He arrived to a nation torn asunder by natural disaster. Scouring the coast for a place that most needed his assistance, he found himself heading East.

“Our heart is in Sri Lanka”: Frank Seevaratnam at his home in Canada

Komari was an insignificant village in Arugambay, badly hit. There, amidst the ruins, Frank stopped. Not a grocery was standing. And the NGOs had missed this pocket of devastation. People were desperate.

Frank was 71 years old, a trained chemical engineer with volunteerism coursing through his veins. What had meant to be a short visit turned into a year in a shattered and broken Komari. He battled red tape, local politics and insect-bite allergies. There were bigger challenges.

“The civil war was on at that time,” he said, via email from Toronto. “The offices of the (area) army commanding officer and that of the Tiger group were one hundred yards on either side of my office. The army officer would ask me for cement and sand to build bunkers with no payment being made. And the Tigers would infiltrate my worksite and, by night, take away the steel I had bought for construction of a community centre and so on.”

“The climate was sensitive and explosive, especially when they knew I was a foreigner,” he continued. “The army was tracking my movements. They would tell me where I was seen, even when I had to go to the bank in the next village.”

Frank started a model farm in Komari. He dug agricultural and drinking wells to get the farmers cultivating again. He built a nursery for children of parents working at the nearby stone quarry. He got generators. He set up computers and started instructing young people while also conducting English classes. He hired a sewing teacher for the women, then opened a shop for them to sell their wares. He erected a community and skills development centre and opened a library. He introduced metalwork, welding, carpentry and electrical training.

“The question we are most frequently asked is how we thought of launching a project of this nature,” Frank, a staunch Christian, recounted. “The answer is that it fulfilled a basic human need in us. We are sure every single person can relate to this. Many opened their hearts and purses as an immediate response to the unbearable suffering of our brothers and sisters who were affected by the tsunami. It is an automatic human response to an external emotional stimuli.”

“Very few of us sit down and reflect on the goals and purpose of our lives,” he mused. “Just as in religion, or any cultural practices, our behaviour is automatic rather than deliberate. Most of the time, we drift with the tide and do what others do—adhere to social norms and fit into societal expectations. We never consciously analyse or reason why we are doing or not doing something.”

The work was carried out through an NGO that Frank and his wife, Pushpa, registered in Canada—with the participation of Ontario-based friends Clement Rodrigo, Brinta Shanmugalingam and Mike Shaw—called Homes of Hope. The initial funding was from Frank and Pushpa and comprised some of their retirement savings and a re-mortgage on their Toronto condominium. The Homes of Hope sign still stands in Komari.

Support to earn a living: Women gainfully employed in sewing

After Frank left, the projects in Komari were handed over to the Methodist Church. A nursery school in Thandiaddy, also built by Homes of Hope, is still functioning. But Frank and Pushpa have not received reports about other projects which, they have been told, are struggling for funds. “Anything given free is not very much appreciated or looked after,” he reflected.

Resourcefulness and hard work are traits Frank, now 83, nurtured from childhood. He moved to Colombo from Jaffna at the age of 10 and attended St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. His father died when he was 18, leaving him to build his own future. He won a scholarship to India where he studied chemical engineering and joined the State-run Paranthan Chemicals on his return. At 21, he helped erect the chemical plant there. Communal strife drove him from the area in 1958.

Frank then secured a competitive scholarship to Germany, where he studied plastics—to fill an expertise gap in Sri Lanka. He joined the plastics engineering division of Brown and Company. The  rose to Manager before taking over from an American as General Manager of the Singer refrigerator division.

When their emigration papers to Canada arrived in 1975, he was at the top of his field with a 10-year-old daughter. They took the opportunity and started from scratch (tough foreign exchange controls meant he could take only three pounds ten with him). Their fortunes changed when Frank got a job as Senior Industrial Engineer at Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

Within a year, Frank was promoted to Supervisor. The next year, he was made Manager/Director of Manufacturing, Industrial and Process Engineering. “I was the only visible minority at executive level in the 86 companies of this group,” he said.

Pushpa returned to school at 38 and earned a diploma in early education, BA in Psychology (first class), Masters in social work (first class) and a doctorate in Education. Sashika became the youngest judge in Canada at 29 and has a Masters in political science in addition to a double doctorate in law. She has two children, Natasha and Noah.

Frank has not been back since he left Komari. But his daughter and her family as well as Pushpa, the sister of the late Lanka Nesiah (who wrote a column for a national newspaper in Sri Lanka under the pseudonym ‘Shanie’), visited in 2015.

Frank and Pushpa’s social work has been an outlet for their religious belief. “We were a little late but we thought it was time we started translating what we learnt from our religion into action,” Frank observed. “Our Komari project was an expression of this determination. We did it to bring some meaning into our lives and to fulfil some purpose to our existence in this world.”

“In life, we make mistakes, regret many things, experience guilt, harp on the wrongs others have done us, face unfair or negative criticisms, have regrets,” he said. “These leave us with guilt, self-blame, inadequacy, low self-esteem, hurt, anger, resentment and other negative feelings which weigh heavily on our conscience throughout life.”

“Once we learned to respect ourselves by accomplishing something worthwhile, all these feelings have become trivial to us,” he explained. “These are true, intrinsic rewards. Because it always leaves us with a feeling that we have earned our right to occupy our space in this world.”

And quietly, without much ado, Frank and Pushpa have been helping needy Sri Lankans everywhere. They donated 150 computers to various schools and supported a Jesuit-run social service programme for the poor in a Tangalle village. They renovated ten wards and installed a generator at the Green Memorial Hospital in Manipay to enable in-house surgery. (The non-profit hospital was founded in 1848 by Dr Samuel Fisk Green and is now run by the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India. It was the first medical school in the country).

The House of Hope centre in Komari set up by Frank and friends

At the Jaffna Teaching Hospital, Homes of Hope contributed money towards a cardiac catheterization laboratory unit to facilitate early diagnosis and prevention of heart attacks through investigation. It provided defibrillator equipment to the Cooperative Hospital Moolai in Jaffna. Pushpa published a book on counselling and helped form the ‘Mental Health Consultants Forum’. They supported counsellors to work in conflict-affected areas and provided board and education for hearing and sight-impaired children. But Government red tape, Frank says, slows progress and is a test of patience.

“We try to do whatever we can, within our means, for our heart is still in Sri Lanka…although we aren’t growing younger,” Frank said. He harked back to a time of “our college days, when we never thought of each other by race but as one people”.

Frank believes that the seeds to improve the world must be sown in schools. It can be as small as encouraging children to share a meal with the homeless.

“We keep our religion and everyday life in two separate compartments,” Frank reflected. “We don’t let them integrate. For most of us, religion consists of learning the scriptures, understanding them, taking part in regular worship, making our monetary contributions to the particular institution we belong to—that is, the church, temple, mosque or any other.”

“The second part consists of integrating them into our beliefs and value systems, applying what we have learnt to our everyday lives and letting it influence our behaviour,” he said. “It is this second part that makes the first part meaningful.”

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