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Purley brothers orphaned in 2004 tsunami using flip-flops to help homeless children worldwide


AT THE beginning of December 2004, the Forkan family – who had upped-sticks and left their family home in Purley to go travelling – flew to Sri Lanka for Christmas.

By the end of the month, both parents would be lost to the tsunami that hit the coast, and six children would be left orphaned.

Rob Forkan who is now 25, remembers staying in a house on the beach, just metres from the water's edge. All his family were there except his two older sisters, who had left the morning before.

"There was no warning. It happened at 8am and everyone was still sleeping," he said.

"We still don't really know what happened. There was no hill to run up away from the wave, there were only roofs to cling to.

"I was sharing a room with my younger brother Paul and we escaped through the window onto the roofs. We managed to find our little brother and went to a temple for safety for a bit. Then we spent all day looking for our little sister and found her right at the end of the day."

Rob does not mention what happened to his parents, Sandra and Kevin.

Six years later, Rob and his brother Paul, now 23, are flying all over the globe – signing deals with some of the world's largest retailers – and the company they set up two years ago is about to take off.

The pair have started a "social enterprise" selling flip-flops called Gandys, a commercial vehicle which is also raising funds to build orphanages around the world.

Rob said: "We said when we came up with the idea that we wanted the first one built in Goa, India on the 10th anniversary of the tsunami, when our parents died. We are right on track for that to happen."

He said they had chosen Goa because they had travelled there as a family many times before and that none of them had been able to go back to Sri Lanka since 2004.

After two years of hard work and consistent pitching and sales to small boutiques, the boys' company has taken off and dozens of major retailers like Selfridges, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Topman, Office and Schuh are selling the flip-flops. The huge American fashion chain Nordstorm will start selling them in the summer.

"Flip-flops seemed very appropriate at the time when he started thinking about the company," Rob said. "We spent all our time in flip-flops when we travelled as a family. After the tsunami, we came home with nothing on our feet.

"No other brand in the world has a message like ours. Ten per cent of our profit goes straight to our charity and towards creating these orphanages. It's purchasing with a purpose and lots of big companies really want the social responsibility aspect now. I want us to be recognised for our ethos – our brand is the ethos rather than the product."

Rob says the brothers' business sense was honed at an early age on the streets of Purley.

The former Woodcote School pupil said: "Paul and I were always quite entrepreneurial. When I grew up in Purley, I was always going off making money by washing people's cars.

"What started in our bedroom has really taken off now. It's mad going down Oxford Street and seeing so many big names selling our flip-flops; I feel like we've come a long way.

"The thing is, with a life like ours – with so much moving around and travelling as a family, and then the tsunami and losing our parents – it didn't occur to us to do something 'normal'.

"We've been through a lot and it means we can face huge challenges and get over them.

"That's been really useful in starting up a company, as there are a lot of highs and lows."

LIKE his brother, Paul Forkan's upbringing has taught him to put others first. He saidremembered: "We did a lot of charity work when we were younger as a family, it was a really strong ethos with us. It makes sense to us to make money for charity through our work. "It makes me really motivated – much more than if I was working for someone else. We're passionate about what we're doing and we're a team of really young people. Businesses come to us to learn how to connect with younger people like us. "When the first children's home is set to mark the tsunami's 10th anniversary, it will be a huge event. We plan to take out some of the stores that supported us, the media and, of course, our family. "It will be a big achievement." The pair are also setting up the Gandy Foundation, which will be 100 per cent charitable and rely on fundraising and donations. For more details, visit www.gandysflipflops.com

Purley brothers orphaned in 2004 tsunami using flip-flops to help homeless children worldwide

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