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Finding the silver lining

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A Siem Reap orphanage rebounds from recent gang violence with the success story of Phem Srey Leak, a former resident now studying abroad

PETER OLSZEWSKI

Geraldine Cox poses with residents of the Sunrise Children’s Village on Sivatha Boulevard in Siem Reap.

INDOMITABLE local personality Geraldine Cox, a flame-haired Australian who has been granted honourary Cambodian citizenship, has had a fiery history setting up orphanages in the Kingdom.

Her Khmer career has been one of mixed blessings - she's taken hard knocks, argued with princesses, abused prime ministers, survived coups and notched up an inspiring string of successes.

But events over the last fortnight at the Siem Reap branch of the Sunrise Children's Villages, which she helps run under the auspices of the Australia Cambodia Foundation Inc, have been typical of the tumultuous upheavals that have marked her time in Cambodia.

The Ministry of Social Justice this month had to step in to quell gang warfare that had broken out in the prominent orphanage on Siem Reap's busy Sivatha Boulevard.

But the impact of that ugly intervention has been more than adequately compensated by good news she's received about what is in a sense a modern fairytale come true, the story of Phem Srey Leak, 18, a once-starving Siem Reap beggar girl plucked off the mean streets and dispatched to an exclusive boarding college in Australia.

Studying at Seymour College, a haven for South Australia's rich kids, the girl has already earned a glowing July 2008 report card and faces a potential-packed future.

While embroiled in the orphanage's recent ‘boys-gone-bad' saga, Cox received a 'girl-does-good' email copy of Phem Srey Leak's  first half-year report and was close to tears as she read excerpts to the Post.

I’m proud of being able to give these kids the opportunity to reach their potential.

"Here we have a girl who has been in Australia for one term of school and her report card says she has already shown amazing academic promise," Cox said.
"Phem Srey Leak was a beggar from Siem Reap, and her young sister is here in this orphanage suffering from infant alcoholic fetal syndrome. When her mother died, this young teenage girl had five brothers and sisters to feed so she ended up begging, just begging for food."

When she was brought to Sunrise Children's Village, it soon became evident that Phem Srey Leak was highly gifted, Cox said.

"In a very short time, we could see this girl really had it. When I asked her what she wanted to do she said, ‘I just want to learn everything about everything.' So after two years here she'd gone from no English, no opportunities, no schooling, to passing her international English test.

"Now her academic qualifications in Australia are absolutely stunning - she's got all A's and B's and has performed better than a lot of Australian girls in the class.

"Remember, this is a Siem Reap beggar girl who is now excelling at a very rich school, a college where my parents could never afford to send me.

"This is all about giving people an opportunity, that's what really spurs me on."

Trip to London

Cox had other good news to impart about the kids in Siem Reap - some of them will soon go to London to perform with the English National Ballet, and others will head to Australia to perform at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.

"These two exciting things are happening next year," she said. 

"Last year, the English National Ballet people visited Siem Reap, came to a Sunday concert, saw our kids dancing and thought they had real potential."

Next year, the English National Ballet will bring a full team of dancers to Siem Reap to do a workshop and select kids to go to London to dance.

Cox said, "Our kids are going to teach them Khmer dancing and they're going to teach our kids classical ballet. And they will pay for them to go to London where they will be doing a performance with the English National Ballet. 

"That's really big."

Last year, a hit television series that grabbed the emotions of Australians was the Choir of Hard Knocks, a  documentary series about a group of drunken druggie Down Under derelicts who were encouraged to sing, formed a choir that produced a best selling CD, and packed a performance at the prestigious Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.

Cox said, "I saw that and I thought if a mob of alcoholic homeless street people can give a performance at the Concert Hall, so can our kids. I sent the appropriate people in Sydney a DVD of our kids performing, and asked whether they were good enough....

"The organisers said, ‘Yep, the dancing is professional, the costumes are sumptuous, and the kids are adorable.'

"So 25 kids from here and 25 kids from Phnom Penh will perform at the Opera House Concert Hall on October 3 next year.

"What a wonderful opportunity for Cambodian culture to be shown in Australia's most prestigious performance arena, and what a great opportunity for our orphans.

"I'm proud of being able to help give these kids the opportunity to reach their potential - nothing can beat that buzz."

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