In Geraldine’s words …
What inspires me: The indefatigable spirit of the Cambodian people to suffer, survive and succeed against all odds.
Best Advice: Do not waste your precious time and energy worrying about things you cannot change.
Favourite mottos: There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in (Leonard Cohen). Never delay joy. Nothing is impossible. Love is all there really is.
It was 1997 and the Cambodian military had staged a coup against the Cambodian Royal Family. As tanks stormed the streets of Phnom Penh, the royal family and all of their staff fled. Except one. A red-haired, middle-aged Australian woman – Geraldine Cox.
Geraldine had been working for the Cambodian royal family, and helping look after 70 kids at a nearby orphanage. As the military unleashed terror throughout the city, a bus of ex-pats tore down the street to Geraldine’s house, people screaming out of the bus windows for Geraldine to flee the country with them. But with the royal family and its staff already gone, who would look after the orphans? “I could never sleep another night if I left those kids and didn’t know what had happened to them,” Geraldine says. “That was a real turning point. I realised these kids and Cambodia were my destiny.” She shook her head and shouted back to the bus passengers. She’d stay. The bus speed off without her.
“I realised these kids and Cambodia were my destiny.”
Geraldine’s split decision that day would spark decades of work in helping Cambodian kids through the launch and operation of Sunrise Cambodia. It would lead this woman, who thought she’d never be a mother, to have hundreds of children call her mum. It would show her that happiness comes in service, in compassion, in kindness.
Not that it had started out that way. Geraldine arrived in Phnom Penh as a 25 year old in 1970. She’d recently discovered she was unable to have children so she determined, if she couldn’t be a mother, she’d opt for a life of glamour and travel. She joined the department of Foreign Affairs with dreams of an exotic and sophisticated life in Paris, or maybe Cairo or Rome. “But I found that I’d been posted to Cambodia just a month after the Vietnam War started,” she says.
As the young Aussie stepped into the embassy car awaiting her at the airport, she was shocked to watch the drivers check the underside of the car for bombs. “That was my arrival,” Geraldine says. “There were rocket attacks every night. There were amputees bleeding in the streets. There were whole villages fleeing from the carpet bombing with all the animals in the streets. There were soldiers with gun belts and grenades walking around. I felt like I was hyperventilating in the first couple of weeks.”
Yet there was something about this country that captured Geraldine’s attention. Geraldine stayed in Cambodia for two years on that first trip. And even later, when she was posted to Manila, to Bangkok, to Tehran, and Washington, she found herself in the file rooms searching for the latest dispatches from Cambodia.
While in Cambodia Geraldine had adopted a daughter. The seven-month old baby had been found in the street, crying and circled by dogs. When Geraldine met her in the orphanage, she was smitten. Geraldine adopted the girl, named her Lisa, and took her home. Within two months she noticed Lisa didn’t seem to be reacting to noise. She tried cleaning the wax from her ears. No change. So she took Lisa to an American doctor. “He just looked at her and me and said ‘why would you want to adopt a child with cerebral palsy? She’s got cerebral palsy, she’s profoundly deaf and dumb, autistic, epileptic, diabetic, and severely mentally challenged.”
Shocked, Geraldine took Lisa home and, for the next seven years, attempted to raise Lisa as she travelled to foreign posts for her work. Eventually she realised she couldn’t continue to care for Lisa in the way she needed. Consumed by guilt, Geraldine took Lisa back to Australia and arranged for her full time care in South Australia. Lisa continues to live there today.
With Lisa now in care, life charged on. Geraldine gained work with Chase Manhattan Bank in Sydney. “I’d gone from politics, wars and civil disturbance, to working in Sydney in the bank and found it so boring,” she says. “Eventually my attitude towards my work reflected that. And I got sacked three weeks before my 50th birthday. I thought ‘oh my god, I’m fat and 50. How am I going to compete with all these young lovely, long-legged, 30 year olds going out for the jobs I am going after’?”
With little idea of what else to do, and still reeling from the guilt of putting Lisa into care, Geraldine returned to Cambodia in 1995.
By then Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of King Sihanouk, had been elected Prime Minister – the same Prince who’d been landlord for Geraldine’s embassy apartment in the 1970s. “I used to go to him and his Princess wife every month to give him that embassy check and say things like ‘hello Your Highness, my toilet is broken, can you please send someone around here to fix it’,’ she laughs. “So we had, I wouldn’t say a deep friendship, but we knew each other and had a few laughs.”
Back in Cambodia, Geraldine regained contact with the Prince and asked for work. He asked her to help rescue a group of 24 children abandoned on the Thai border. The kids, aged from two to 18, had no parents or guardians, and had taken up residence in an abandoned school, with the Khmer Rouge fighting around them.
“In fact, when I first went there you could hear the fighting from the Khmer Rouge maybe full 50 meters away while we were shivering in our beds,” Geraldine says. “It was a very scary place to be.” The kids were sent to a deserted military training base in Phnom Penh. This group of rag-tag children would form the beginning of what would later become the first Sunrise Cambodia residential care centre.
Mum loves us
Fast forward to the coup of 1997, after Geraldine had refused to board the bus with the other ex-pats. Geraldine found she had to wait three days for the fighting to ease before she could reach the children. Fearing what she’d find, she drove into the grounds where the kids were staying, beeping the horn in the same manner she did every time she entered. “When I did that the kids came from everywhere – from the laundry, from the kitchen, the dining room – they just ran out. They were just screaming look mum’s here, she didn’t leave us, she loves us and they practically lifted me out of the car, crying and laughing. From then, I knew I’d done the right thing in staying.”
But not long after, tanks rolled into the centre’s grounds and AK47-weilding soldiers lined up the kids as they kneeled in the dirt, praying for their lives and urinating in fear. Unbeknownst to Geraldine, the Prince had given the land to house the children illegally – it was in fact military owned. And the military wanted it back. As the children whimpered on their knees, Geraldine marched towards the soldiers and confronted them. “I just looked them in the eye – they were so young – and said ‘does your mother know what you’re doing here today?’” Geraldine says. “But that didn’t have any effect.”
Regardless, the soldiers soon left. Why? Geraldine asked the kids. “Your hair saved us,” they said. Apparently, and much to Geraldine’s amusement, Cambodian women with unfaithful husbands go to a famous witch who shrinks the adulterous husbands’ penis to the size of a pea. Like Geraldine, the witch has red-hair.
“They were just screaming look mum’s here, she didn’t leave us, she loves us.”
Plea to the top
While chuckling at the result of her red hair, Geraldine knew she couldn’t rely on her hair alone to keep the children safe. She’d need to go the top – to the man who’d mounted the coup in the first place, Hun Sen. There was only one problem. She’d been on international TV condemning him, likening him to Pol Pot. Regardless, Geraldine penned him a letter, apologising for her actions and requesting an audience. She took the kids with her, had them dance for him, and explained their plight. “And I found him to be a really good man,” Geraldine says. He not only apologised for the way the soldiers had treated the kids at the orphanage but gifted them 10 hectares of land for a new residential care centre, supplied electricity and arranged for the King to give Geraldine Cambodian citizenship, saying the Cambodian children needed a mother like her.
“I think he liked me – I was cheeky and Cambodian women aren’t like that,” Geraldine says. “I think he enjoyed my different personality.” Later, when he asked Geraldine how else he could help, she asked for him to organise a rich Cambodian husband – the only request he’s yet to gift!
That first orphanage, named Sunrise Children’s Village (now Sunrise Cambodia), has now grown to five residential care centres housing more than 350 kids. Sunrise also schools a further 2000 kids whose parents can’t afford schooling. It installs village wells, builds houses, provide bikes for kids to ride to school and offers free health clinics. It also helps pay the cost of wedding receptions for orphans who’ve been through its care, and funerals for those whose families can’t afford a burial. Thousands of Cambodian kids now have a new chance at life. And, like any mum, Geraldine couldn’t be prouder.
Among the hundreds of stories that have captured Geraldine’s heart is the story of one boy, Tai, with cerebral palsy whose mother had sold him to a begging ring in Thailand. Tai came to Sunrise as a nine-year-old, with crippled legs but a sharp mind. Geraldine once asked the kids what they would wish for if they had the chance. Most kids dreamed of motorbikes, jewels, cars or lovely houses. But Tai said he’d ask to be very good in this lifetime. Why? Geraldine asked. He responded, “Because I must have been very, very bad in a past life for my mother to throw me away and for me to not be able to walk like other children. If I’m very good in this lifetime maybe in my next lifetime I’ll have a mother who will love me and I’ll be able to run with the other kids.”
Or there’s the story of Waew, whose mother sold her in Thailand aged around 8 years old. Waew remembers her mother pushing her towards an old lady, taking some money from the woman’s grubby fingers and saying ‘she’s your mother now.’ The woman kept Waew with a roomful of other kids, fed them but kept them dirty and sent them out by day to beg on the streets before a car rounded them up at night to return to the old woman’s house.
The begging ring operators were unhappy with Waew’s efforts so, in a bid to make her appear more desperate, they doused her face in acid. With no medical attention, Waew was forced back to the streets to beg. But the begging ring operators remained unhappy with Waew’s income. One day the car failed to return to collect her. She was 8 years old, horribly disfigured and left on the streets.
The Austrian Consul discovered Waew on the streets and, thinking she was a Thai girl, put her into a Thai orphanage. When the orphanage directors discovered she was Cambodian, she was put into an immigration prison. “She’d been sold, abused, tortured, rejected and imprisoned all by the age of 10,” Geraldine says.
When Waew finally ended up at Sunrise, Geraldine realised her disfigured face meant she would suffer the taunts of children at school, so Geraldine organised a private tutor. It soon became apparent that Waew was smart. She has since graduated from school and started a university degree. And she was recently the keynote speaker in English at the International Burns Survivor Conference in Geneva.
When Geraldine asked her how she was faring in the outside world, away from Sunrise’s guardianship, Waew replied. “Some days are good, some days are bad. People point at me and whisper but I stand up straight and say to them ‘what I look like is not who I am’.”
“She’d been sold, abused, tortured, rejected and imprisoned all by the age of 10.”
Mum for life
Despite the successes Geraldine admits it’s becoming harder to raise the $2.5 to $3 million a year she needs to keep Sunrise running at its current level. She relies on donations, mostly from Australia, to continue her lifesaving work.
But, now in her seventies, she has no plans to leave. “I say to the kids I want to be cremated here, put in a jar and placed in the dining room so I can hear all your gossip every night,” she says. “Cambodia is my home and this is where I want to end my days.”
Get involved …
You can support Sunrise Cambodia’s efforts by making a donation online at www.sunrisecambodia.org.au.
Sunrise Cambodia is in the middle of a reintegration program. Where it is safe and possible, it is returning the children in their care back to family/relatives and the villages they came from. That way Sunrise Cambodia is supporting the family/village, not just the child. The number of children in care is decreasing, but financial support is still needed. In fact Sunrise Cambodia is now a world class charity providing shelter, education and health to the poorest people in Cambodia.