After finishing her foundational studies at Trinity College and earning a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Melbourne in 2022, Ron Sophy, a girl who once lived at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump and scavenged for things to sell, is now working at a private school in Australia before returning to Scott Neeson’s Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF).
“When I was studying for my Bachelor’s degree, I couldn’t work. So I didn’t want to return home without getting some work experience first. I am working at a private school in higher education for two years first, and so far I have been working for six months,” Sophy said.
The former media communications and international relations student said that she has no plans to continue her studies yet and that she will return to work for Cambodian Children’s Fund after two years of working in Australia. Sophy said she wanted to gain work experience and learn to be more independent.
“When I return to Scott’s CCF, I will volunteer to do what I can,” Sophy, 26, told The Post.
She said that she is looking forward to giving back to the place where she was educated and uplifted from the garbage dump, but she also had business plans with friends that they had arranged before she flew to study in Australia.
The second of seven siblings, Sophy has always received encouragement and support from her family for her educational goals as well as her life plans.
She said that her parents were unable to earn a good living, but there was support from their children, and that she was able to pay her own expenses in Australia and still send money home.
“My mother has a problem with her bones and my dad is a romork driver but he cannot make as much money like those using a mobile app,” she said.
Sophy said that only she and her fourth brother had gone to university, while the others had just graduated from high school and worked to support the family.
She said that the other five siblings did not get higher education due to a lack of opportunities.
“For my sisters, it can be said that circumstances forced them to drop out of school. Two of my brothers did not make much effort and just stopped studying,” she said.
Three out of seven of the siblings had the opportunity to study at CCF and two of them made it through university. All of Sophy’s sisters are now married.
Sophy’s parents were in considerable debt and when she had only been in school for two weeks they decided to move from Kampong Cham province to Phnom Penh with their (at the time) five children, because they heard that scavenging for things to sell at Stung Meanchey garbage dump required no capital to start doing.
“At first I did not like garbage dump because of its bad smell and its environment, but after spending a lot of time sleeping and eating there, I felt like it was my home,” she said.
Sophy recalled some of her life’s hardships from her childhood, which made her able to cope with tough situations as well as adapt to new environments.
“Whenever there was heavy rain the hut covered by mats would start leaking and rain fell into the shanty, so everyone was wet. At that time I wondered how my parents were still sleeping while they were wet, I could not sleep. In the morning, I played normally,” she said.
After living in a garbage dump from such a young it became normal to her and she was not always grief-stricken, but she recalls that the starvation was often miserable.
“I ate things from a truck transporting unwanted rotten fruits from Doeum Kor market. I ate that fruit every day and when I had abdomen pain I did not care, I still ate those fruits and to me it was delicious,” she said.
She recalled that while she was picking through trash with her friends, there was a foreign man, Scott Neeson, who saw her living in poor conditions and going without any education, and he said through an interpreter that he would enroll her at his organisation and gave her his card.
Sophy said that at the time she did not know anything about him but she wanted to study like her older sister who studied at Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE).
“When I saw my older sister come home with nice clothes while I didn’t have any, I thought I should go to school so I could have a chance to look nice too,” she said. “It seems like fate predestined it, because most of the time I would never keep something like a business card, but that day I told my mother and asked her to keep that foreign guy’s card.”
She added that, one week later, Neeson returned in a car to pick up her and another boy, while Sophy’s fourth sister was crying and wanted to come with so she was also taken in by the organisation.
Studying and living at CCF helped Sophy and her sister get an education and live a comfortable life because it’s a nice place to stay and very different from her shanty near a mountain of garbage.
“Living with Scott’s organisation now it seems like he is another parent to me. Of course, my real parents could not afford to supply anything like that. I had a place to stay, three meals each day with dessert, I could go to school and they gave us new clothing, ” she said. “At that time, if I had not gone to Scott’s school, I would not have been able to imagine being here in Australia today. Overall, my future was uncertain, I did not know what it would be”.
She said that when she was young she had seen people who had the opportunity to study abroad, but she thought for sure that there was no chance for her to ever visit a foreign country because there was no money to pay for it.
After graduating from high school at CCF, Sophy applied for a scholarship at Trinity College, Australia. Sophy, who speaks English very well, said that at first when she heard that she had won the scholarship she did not dare believe it was true, not even when Scott first told her about it, until there was an official announcement.
She said that she was not afraid to study abroad because her survival skills are strong and she is also active in volunteering abroad.
Sophy said she stays in touch with CCF and she recently received a message from Scott asking her to help persuade children currently studying there not to drop out. Since she is still abroad, she produced a video to send to the school to encourage the students to pursue their studies.
“As I well know, most of those children drop out of school because they need money to help their families,” she said.