TamilWeek Feb 26, 2006
Komari’s miracle
worker: big heart and
iron will

By Namini Wijedasa
Frank Seevaratnam
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."
[Sunday Island]
Homes of  
Hope Life