Lai Tai was born severely disabled and wobbles around on deformed legs.
When he was 8 years old, the Cambodian youngster, now 14, was sold by his abusive mother to a begging ring in Thailand, where he was forced to solicit handouts from tourists on the streets of Bangkok.
He lived in squalor and was regularly beaten. “I felt unhappy and suffered a lot,” he remembers. He blamed himself for his misfortune.
“I thought I must have been a terrible person in my past life to have been born like this,” he explains, referring to the Buddhist concept of karma that attributes disease and suffering in this life to presumed misdeeds in past ones. “I hoped if I was a good person I’d have a good mother in my next life,” he adds.
He has one now.
Sent back to Cambodia by Thai authorities, the homeless youth came to the attention of Geraldine Cox, an Australian who runs orphanages in the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
Today, Lai Tai lives at Ms. Cox’s Sunrise Children’s Village, a half-hour drive from the capital, Phnom Penh. Sprawling on 25 acres of private land with lotus-flecked ponds, shady trees, and vegetable gardens, the resortlike facility boasts a tennis court, soccer field, swimming pool, playhouse, state-of-the-art playground, and well-stocked library. “I’m happy here,” the boy says.
Like the other 125 current residents, who range from toddlers to 18-year-olds, he studies at a nearby private school and takes afternoon classes in English, computer skills, and the arts.
“Mom is kindly and loves us all,” Lai Tai notes, referring to Cox. “If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t know what to do.”
Cox knows what she wants the children to do. “We want them to find their individual talents, whether it’s in English or math or something else,” she says. “We want them to feel they can be whatever they want to be.”
Nine of the orphanage’s older students are studying in Australia, in high schools and top-notch vocational programs. Several former residents have found well-paying jobs in Phnom Penh.
It’s a Sunday morning and the children are pursuing their favorite hobbies. Some are taking swimming lessons. Others, like Lai Tai, are busy dipping brushes in acrylics and painting pictures of rainbow-hued elephants, happy children, or saffron-robed monks. Still others are practicing their music skills on a variety of instruments.
Thirteen-year-old Phannat, who was abandoned by his parents as a baby and has lived here ever since, is playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major on a piano, tackling the dreamy melodies with growing aplomb. He decided to learn to play the piano a year ago, so Cox hired a teacher for him. Now the eighth-grader practices every day.
“I like to play. I love the sounds,” says the aspiring young musician. “When I feel sad, I play the piano.”
Cox tears up while listening to him play. Presently, though, in another music room, she bursts into an improvised Zorba the Greek-style dance, snapping her fingers delightedly, as Sothon, age 17, coaxes the Latin beats of the Mexican song “¿Quién Será?” out of a saxophone with another music teacher.
“Some people say I pamper the kids too much [by paying for their music lessons], that I should spend the money instead to feed other orphans elsewhere. But these here are all damaged children – abused, discarded, neglected, unloved, unwanted,” she says. “We’ve got kids with fetal alcohol syndrome, meningitis, acid burns, polio, hepatitis, brittle bone disease, Asperger’s [syndrome]. They deserve this.”
With her pearly earrings, beaded necklace, clunky bangles, calico blouse, and carrot-red hair bunched into a jaunty topknot held in place by a white chopstick, Cox resembles a carnival barker with a correspondingly flamboyant personality. A milkman’s daughter from Adelaide who would go on to traverse the world as a secretary for Australia’s diplomatic corps, she’s gregarious and refreshingly honest.
“Some people see me as loud and pushy, a fat lady with silly red hair, but that’s who I am,” she offers.
Cox has also been criticized for her friendship with Cambodia’s autocratic prime minister, Hun Sen, who donated the land for her orphanage in Kandal Province and later built her an airy traditional teak-wood house on the property.
The land was once the site of a military barracks, and when Cox took it over she found the pond once housed the remains of unidentified locals, perhaps dispatched in summary executions during the coup of 1997 when Mr. Hun Sen ousted his co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. These days only frogs and fish inhabit its waters.
Once a friend of the prince, Cox, who worked for the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s and returned to live in Cambodia permanently in 1996, publicly called Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerilla, “a thug, a murderer, and a gangster, no better than Pol Pot” during the coup. (Pol Pot’s fanatical communist Khmer Rouge movement is blamed for the deaths of some 2 million Cambodians in the 1970s.)
Today, as a naturalized Cambodian citizen, Cox is a card-carrying member of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
“He calls me ‘older sister,’ and I call him ‘little brother,’ ” she explains. “Clearly he doesn’t like me for my body,” quips the matronly Australian. “But I think he respects what we do for the children and sees we’re genuinely interested in their welfare.”
Soon after the coup in 1997, Cox lost the right to the plot of land where she was running her first orphanage, which she had helped set up in 1993 after witnessing the plight of abandoned children during protracted hostilities in the war-torn country. Desperate, she sought an audience with Hun Sen and threw herself at his mercy. She did so by sprawling before him on the floor in a calculated gesture of supplicant self-debasement she had seen actress Meryl Streep perform in the movie “Out of Africa.”
They’ve been friends ever since.
Recently, Cambodia’s prime minister procured another plot of land for Cox in the seaside resort town of Sihanoukville, where in 2012 she opened a home for children living with HIV. She’s also managing a formerly government-run orphanage in the town of Siem Reap, which she took over with the prime minister’s help after seeing how its young residents, mostly children rescued from traffickers, were being mistreated.
“They had cuts and bruises on them, cigarette burns, anything you can imagine,” she recalls.
Cox has been awarded the Order of Australia, her homeland’s highest honor, for her humanitarian work. Yet she insists she’s no “saint or do-gooder.”
“Some people in Australia come up to me and say how wonderful they think I am for having given up my life for these children. That’s totally false,” she explains. “I’ve done all this for selfish reasons. I wanted children in my life, and now I’ve got them.”
Cox adopted a 7-month-old Cambodian girl, Lisa, from a Phnom Penh orphanage in 1971. The child was later diagnosed with profound autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy.
Lisa now lives at a special-needs home in Australia where she receives 24-hour care.
Every few months Cox flies back to Australia to see Lisa and do some fundraising for her orphanages in Cambodia. She speaks at events, hobnobs with the rich and famous, and badgers corporate executives for favors and donations.
“No one ever says no – I’m good,” brags the can-do woman, who in jest marks down “mendicant” as her job description on immigration forms. “I’d never ask for myself, but it’s easy to ask for the children,” she says. “I just look at them and think, ‘They deserve a good life, and they’re gonna get it!’ ”
• To learn more, visit http://www.scv.org.au
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