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.”