Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Fairy tales can come true

Fairy tales can come true

Fairy tales can come true

Peter Olszewski

It’s a modern fairy tale come true with the starving Siem Reap beggar girl in the role of the Ugly Duckling plucked off the mean streets and dispatched to an exclusive girls boarding college in Australia.

While studying at Seymour College, a haven for South Australia’s rich kids, she transforms into the Beautiful Swan complete with a glowing July 2008 report card resplendent with A’s and B’s and facing a potential-packed future.

As clichéd as this scenario may be, it’s the true story of 18-year-old Srey Leak Phem, one of the success stories of Cambodia’s Sunrise Children’s Villages, orphanages run under the auspices of the Australia Cambodia Foundation Inc.

And yes, there’s also a fairy godmother in this transformational fable: the indomitable, legendary Geraldine Cox, former diplomat, banker, Order of Australia medal-holder, honorary Cambodian citizen, and president of Sunrise Children’s Villages.

Or, as she prefers to be known, Big Mum.

Cox helped establish the original orphanage in Phnom Penh 15 years ago and in 2004 helped take over a moribund government-run orphanage in Siem Reap which now cares for almost 80 children.

When she flew to Siem Reap in late July to check progress, a couple of surprises awaited.

First, the in-flight magazine Sarika featured a full-page article about her contribution to Cambodia. She shamelessly fossicked through the seat pockets on the plane, collected all copies of the magazine and distributed them to the kids at the airport to greet her.

Then, in her office, she received the email copy of Srey Leak Phem’s first half-year report and was close to tears as she read excerpts to the Post.

“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.

“Srey Leak Phem 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. She wasn’t selling calendars or gifts, she didn’t have a little commercial set-up, she was just begging for food. The plight of that family was brought to our attention and our country director, Gerald Trevor, got those children and brought them here.”

It soon became evident that Srey Leak Phem was a highly gifted young woman.

“In a very short time, we could see this girl really had it,” said Cox. “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.

“She’s excelling at a very rich school, a college where my parents could never afford to send me.”

And Cox has even more good news to impart to 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. The English National Ballet will bring a full team of dancers here to do a workshop and select kids to go to London to dance.

“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,” she said. “Our kids are going to teach them some Khmer dancing and they’re going to teach our kids classical ballet.”

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

“I saw that.” Cox said, “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 in full dress when they did the Adelaide Festival in 2002 and asked whether they were good enough for the Concert Hall. The organisers came back and 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 be performing at the Opera House Concert Hall on October 3 next year, and my job now is to find money for the airfares, accommodation, food, ground transportation, entertainment, and so on. But 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.”

Cox says, “I’m proud of being able to give these kids the opportunity to reach their potential. Nothing can beat that buzz.”


  • Over $3M in traffic fines collected in two months

    Traffic police officers collected over $3 million in fines throughout the Kingdom during the past two months when officers strictly enforced the law in accordance with a May sub-decree, officials said. As incentives, law enforcement officers received between 200,000 and two million riel ($50 to $500) each. The figures

  • More than 10,000 workers suspended

    More than 10,000 workers at 18 factories in Svay Rieng province have been suspended because of Covid-19, said provincial deputy governor Ros Pharith. Home to 11 special economic zones, Pharith said Svay Rieng has not been spared as the pandemic takes a toll on the global economy. “There

  • Oz lauds Kingdom’s passage of money laundering laws

    In a press release published by the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh on Monday, the country applauded Cambodia’s stance on transnational crimes as well as its promulgation of an anti-money laundering law and a law on combating proliferation financing. The praise came after King

  • Lotus face masks designed to cover globe

    A French designer in Cambodia has produced ecological face masks from lotus fibre to supply local and international markets with an eye on preserving ancestral techniques and supporting Cambodian women in rural communities. During a trip to Asia, Awen Delaval, an eco-friendly fashion designer, was

  • Accused not treated equally, says CCHR

    The Cambodia Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) has urged the Court of Appeal to do more to ensure that an accused’s right to a fair trial is fully respected. In a bulletin released on Monday, the CCHR said it had monitored 273 cases at the

  • Planning ministry hands out cash to 420,000 poor families in Kingdom

    The Ministry of Planning has identified 20,000 more poor families in the country, bringing the total to over 580,000, while over 420,000 of them have received the government’s cash assistance. In the meantime, many social security cards from families not deemed to be poor have been revoked.

  • Investors’ $14.4M projects approved

    New investments from local and foreign sources continue to pour into Cambodia despite the Covid-19 pandemic remaining a lingering threat to regional and global economies. This comes as the Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract between one and 2.9 per cent this

  • NagaWorld casinos set to reopen, schools to follow

    NAGACORP Ltd has requested that it be allowed to reopen its NagaWorld integrated resorts in Phnom Penh after the government recently approved casinos to operate again, provided they follow Covid-19 prevention measures set by the Ministry of Health. Mey Vann, the director-general of the Ministry

  • Rubber exports stretch 17%

    Cambodia exported 97,175 tonnes of natural rubber in the first five months of this year, surging 17 per cent compared to the same period last year as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official Khuong Phalla told The Post on Thursday. Phalla,

  • ASEM supports Kingdom’s proposal to postpone meeting amid Covid

    The 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM13) scheduled to be held in Cambodia in November has been postponed until mid-2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation press statement released on Saturday said. The decision was made during a two-day meeting