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Captiva Memorial Library shines light on Sehgal family

By Staff | Jan 27, 2016

Edda Sehgal, Marly Cornell and Suri Sehgal. MEGHAN McCOY

Residents and visitors were treated to an afternoon of learning about the Sehgal family and the work they do through their foundation for those living in rural India.

“As a reader, and as a writer, I am most interested in inspiring stories by fascinating people,” Marly Cornell said at the beginning of the Afternoon Sojourns program at Captiva Memorial Library last week.

Cornell shared the story of Captiva residents Suri and Edda Sehgal, which was accompanied through reading a few excerpts from her two books “Seeds for Change” and “Together We Empower.” Both of the books were given to everyone in attendance as a gift from the Sehgal Foundation.

“Seeds for Change,” which came out in 2014 was originally intended just for the Sehgal family because their kids were adults before they found about their parents journey to the United States.

“Suri and Edda agreed the book be written as a way to celebrate their 50 year marriage, their 40 years as proud Americans and 15 years of working in rural development in India,” Cornell said.

She said that Suri and Edda share a miraculous similarity of their early lives. Both of them had difficult childhoods during pivotal moments in world history, both refugees forced to escape their country’s origin and both of their families lost all of their land and possessions and had to start elsewhere in other countries.

Suri’s story began in the old British Punjab Province of colonial India, now part of Pakistan. As independence finally came to India, there was a terrible period of violence and bloodshed and the Sehgal family home became part of a refugee camp. As the dangers escalated around them, Suri’s parents became desperate to send three of his sisters to safety.

A refugee train was expected to arrive early the next morning and the elder Sehgal decided that four of his children should be on that train.

“When the train arrived it was already crowded and there was no way they could fit in one compartment on the train,” Cornell read, adding that two of his sisters were able to squeeze into one compartment and a sister into another.

His 11 year old sister was left in another compartment of the train. Suri was enlisted at the last moment as his father quickly pushed him onto the train to take care of his little sister.

Edda who lived in the Silesian Lowlands, now part of Poland, had memories as early as 1945.

“When the family reached the railway station, people staying behind took the horses,” Cornell read from “Seeds for Change.” “Though the trains were jammed, Edda’s family was able to stay together in the same car of the first of many trains they boarded in the coming days, weeks, and months. The train cars had no windows and no heat. Margarete was very glad she brought the potty for Edda. People were so tightly crammed onto the train that some of them could not get to the train toilets. They wet their pants, which would then freeze. A few individuals died of burst bladders in the bitter cold. Many were too weak to withstand the extremes in temperature and the continuing discomfort. Thousands leaving Silesia that winter died from hypothermia in transit.”

Almost immediately the two met each other while Suri was going to school for his PhD in seed plant genetics. After school, the couple moved to Iowa where he worked for Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company for 24 years. Cornell said during those years he was instrumental in turning the company into a global giant.

Suri said the hybrid seed has more productivity and is very expensive and beyond the needs of very poor people of India.

In 1998, the couple decided to begin the Sehgal Foundation to help the poor in rural India after using the proceeds of selling his business, all while facing a challenge of knowing very little about development. The couple decided to begin helping an area in India where the poverty was extreme.

After establishing the foundation in the U.S. in 1998, and in India in 1999 they became residents in Captiva in 2000.

“Together we Empower” is a record that demonstrates the foundation’s successes and mistakes. Cornell said the book serves as a roadmap for others.

A couple of things the Sehgal’s have learned through the foundation that have been important lessons include working alongside people in need, rather than for them is absolutely necessary because people value what they create for themselves; rural development must be community led to be sustainable; providing hope for the vulnerable, especially women, is essential to empower a community to take responsibility of their own will and development is a process that is very slow.

The foundation focuses on three main areas, which include water security, food security and social justice.

Suri said they started very small with four villages and now work in 450 villages. He said by the end of the year they hope to touch 600 villages.

“The democracy in India is very corrupt, so you have to deal with the bottom up approach and empower the people, so they can take care of their own destiny,” Suri said. “You have to bring the people together and make them aware of their legal rights.”

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.