26/02/2006" By Namini Wijedasa
Frank Seevaratnam left Sri Lanka thirty years ago with a wife, a daughter and three pounds ten in his pocket.
Back then, the family had vowed to stay away from this turbulent little island that never seemed to get it right. Canada promised more stability, better living and less racial tension. The Seevaratnams set up home in Toronto and eventually became immensely successful.
For three decades, Frank avoided Sri Lanka. In December 2004, however, his resolve melted. He and his wife, Pushpa, were holidaying in Cuba when they learnt of the Asian tsunami. Pictures flashed across television screens, depicting death, destruction and consummate grief.
Today, even Christmas can’t take 71-year-old Frank home to Canada. He hasn’t seen his wife or grandchildren in months. Living in the eastern village of Komari since May, last year, he resolutely fights red tape, local politics and nagging insect-bite allergies to resurrect a devastated community that few of us care about.
"I didn’t go," he says, when asked whether he had taken a planned Christmas break in Toronto. "I wanted to see this through."
You couldn’t get an egg or a banana in the shattered village when Frank first arrived. Unfazed, he started a model farm, bought chickens and got the people cultivating. The water was contaminated so he dug agricultural and drinking wells anew.
He opened a nursery for children of parents working at the nearby stone quarry. There was no electricity so he acquired generators. He quickly bought computers and began instructing young people while also organising English classes. He contracted a sewing teacher who trains women in dressmaking and other crafts. They are selling their wares in a shop he has opened on their behalf.
A large community and skills development centre is nearly complete and a library is already open. Job opportunities are expanding. Frank has introduced metalwork, welding, carpentry and training for electricians. Identifying musical talent in many young people, he has just bought a set of instruments and is hunting for a teacher. Cultural workshops are being planned while he also wants to create an audio studio. There is a basketball court on the cards, along with facilities for netball and volleyball. An old age home is being built, too.
Project after project is initiated and shepherded to fruition by a man who had never wanted to come back.
Frank is a post-tsunami story with a difference. There are no big, money-spinning NGOs or multilaterals involved. No fancy cars, no air-conditioned comforts, no holidays. The food Frank eats isn’t the best in town. He has no parties to attend. What he does have are personal funds and an unflagging sense of commitment. "I work all day, seven days," he says. "I’m awake till late in the night."
The tsunami had moved Frank and Pushpa deeply, he remembers: "We knew we had to do something." Along with Toronto-based friends Clement Rodrigo, Brinta Shanmugalingam and Mike Shaw, Frank set up and registered a non governmental organisation called Homes of Hope. The initial funding came from Frank and Pushpa. They scraped together their retirement savings, re-mortgaged their Toronto condominium and rushed to Sri Lanka.
Pushpa didn’t come. Neither did Frank’s daughter, Sashika. They continue to support him from home base. The money still flows from the family coffers but nobody regrets a cent that has been spent.
"When I first got to Sri Lanka, I hired a vehicle and travelled along the coast," Frank narrated. "I was looking for a place that most needed my assistance." The destruction was sweeping. Towns and villages had been flattened. Communities were in disarray. Frank was soon making tracks towards the east.
"When I reached Komari, something told me this was where I should be," he said.
There were no NGOs in Komari. The fancy cars had driven by. It was a remote, rural village with no facilities. "You had to drive for miles to get basic groceries," Frank reflected. "Perhaps that’s why nobody stopped here."
All of Komari’s bewildered families were initially huddled in tents and shelters. Frank had nowhere to stay so he, too, moved into a tent. He subsequently rented a local home that had been partly destroyed by the tsunami. After digging a well for his own use and rebuilding the damaged residence, he dived into his projects with an energy that belies his age.
Frank has always been a diligent worker. Born in Jaffna, he moved to Colombo at the age of 10 where he attended St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. His father — a school principal — died unexpectedly when Frank was eighteen, leaving the boy to fend for himself. "I built my own future," he asserted, with quiet pride.
A Colombo Plan Common wealth Scholarship took Frank to India, where he studied chemical engineering. He returned to a government job at Paranthan Chemicals. At the age of 21, he helped erect the chemical plant at Paranthan. In 1958, he left the east due to communal strife and succeeded in clinching a competitive scholarship to Germany, where he studied plastics.
"I always studied something different," he explained. "Sri Lanka had no expertise in plastics so I branched out."
Around this time, Brown and Company invited Frank to join their plastics engineering division. Young Frank became the manager of the plastics engineering division and later succeeded an American as general manager of the Singer refrigerator division.
By 1975, he was at the top of his career. Sashika was 10 and attending school. That year, the family learned that their migration papers to Canada had been approved.
They took the plunge, going in at the deep end. "I resigned my job and went to start afresh," Frank said. Due to stringent controls on foreign exchange, he took only three pounds ten with him. "For four-and-a-half months, we struggled with nothing," he related. "We rented an apartment but didn’t have any furniture. We slept on the floor."
The break came when Frank secured the post of senior industrial engineer at Westinghouse. It was no mean achievement. He was the only visible minority in an executive position. He later rose to manager, industrial engineering, and managing director, manufacturing, industrial engineering and process engineering. He left Westinghouse after 15 years and worked as an industrial and management consultant before retiring in 2000.
Pushpa is also a leader in her chosen field, as is Sashika. The former started re-qualifying at the age of 38 — obtaining her diploma in early education, BA in Psychology (first class), Masters in Social Work (first class) and doctorate in Education. Sashika, who became the youngest judge in Canada at the age of 29, has a Masters in Political Science and a double doctorate in Law. She is the mother of two children – Natasha and Noah.
Honest and committed, Frank is driven by a genuine belief that every individual can succeed. He figures that this conviction is rooted in personal experience. Already, he has inspired young people in Komari to enrol at the Open University. His is passionate about education and vocational training. "I don’t believe in handouts," he said. "I believe in helping people to help themselves."
"Many NGOs have turned our people into beggars," he worried. "They have lost their self-respect. It is important that they get back their dignity. I’m trying to contribute towards that process."
"There is so much talent in the young people of Komari," he says, genuinely aggrieved. "What they lack is opportunity. Children in villages also deserve an equal chance at studying English. The standard of education in those schools is appalling. Teachers don’t teach. Children are encouraged to go for tuition, instead."
Life in Komari is challenging. Frank is away from friends and family. There are no creature comforts. He has had to return to basics. But he won’t budge. "My reward is in the smiles of happy children," he said. "If there is sincerity of purpose, any problem can be solved."
Is Frank worried that his money will go to waste? "My money won’t go to waste," he said. "I have understood the community. I have spoken to them. I have met their needs and they will take everything forward."
"I have not lost anything in getting these people back on their feet."