Phuket, Thailand (CNN) — When Southeast Asia was rocked by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2004, Susanne Janson was glued to her television in Stockholm, Sweden.
Her two daughters — 14-year-old Eleonor and 12-year-old Josefin — were vacationing in Thailand at the time with her ex-husband and his new family, and she hadn’t heard any news of their whereabouts because phone lines were unreliable.
With such a lack of information, it didn’t take long for Janson and her partner, Hans Forssell, to hop on a plane.
“I was so sure that when we arrived in Thailand, I would have a (text) message telling me that I could come back home because we missed each other in the air,” Janson recalls. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have that message.”
When Janson and Forssell arrived in Khao Lak, the city her daughters were staying in, they learned that it had been one of Thailand’s hardest-hit areas.
“There was nothing left … everything had disappeared,” Janson said.
Eventually, she had to face a tragic reality: that her daughters had perished along with their father and three other members of his family.
“When I realized I wouldn’t bring them back home alive, I wanted to die,” said Janson, 47.
Grief-stricken, and with no interest in returning to her advertising career, Janson was lost. But she frequently remembered the support and grace offered to her by the Thai people in their time of mutual crisis. So when she read that a Thai-Swedish couple she’d met were building an orphanage in Phuket for children who’d lost their families in the tsunami, she decided she wanted to help.
“I felt a connection with the Thai people,” Janson said. “They had suffered so much more than I suffered. Here, you had people that lost children, homes, everything, and they were strong. So I think that affected me, and their kindness to me was such that I wanted to give something back.”
In March 2005, Janson and Forssell returned to Thailand as volunteers at the orphanage, and in 2006 they made their stay permanent. They sold their Swedish apartment and became the managers of Barnhem Muang Mai, a care home that has helped more than 100 children to date.
For the first year, the facility cared for children and families directly affected by the tsunami. But as relatives reconnected after the tragedy, the original beneficiaries moved on and Barnhem’s mission evolved.