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 canít take 71-year-old
Frank home to Canada. He hasnít 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 didnít go," he says, when asked whether he
had taken a planned Christmas break in Toronto. "I wanted to see
You couldnít 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
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
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 isnít 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. "Iím
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
Pushpa didnít come. Neither did Frankís
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 thatís why nobody stopped here."
All of Komariís 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
Frank has always been a diligent worker. Born in
Jaffna, he moved to Colombo at the age of 10 where he attended
St Peterís College, Bambalapitiya. His father ó a school
principal ó 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
"I always studied something different," he
explained. "Sri Lanka had no expertise in plastics so I branched
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
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 didnít
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 ó
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
Ė 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 donít 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. Iím 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 donít 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 wonít 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 wonít 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."