Big big mother

Jewish Australian Geraldine Cox looks after her Cambodian orphans like a mother hen guarding her brood.

A resident caregiver with a young girl at the orphanage; (left) Children during playtime at Sunrise Children’s Village (photo credit: TIBOR KRAUSZ)
A resident caregiver with a young girl at the orphanage; (left) Children during playtime at Sunrise Children’s Village
(photo credit: TIBOR KRAUSZ)
SOK LIM, a jolly little chap with a ready smile and prematurely well-mannered mien, arrived at the Sunrise Children’s Village orphanage last July. His mother, an alcoholic, brought six-year-old Sok Lim and his five-year-old sister, Chanthai, to Geraldine Cox, the children’s home founder, intent on getting rid of them.
“She said, ‘I have a new husband and he doesn’t want them so I don’t want them either.
You can have them,’” recalls Cox, a Jewish Australian woman who runs three orphanages – for some 400 children in all – around Cambodia, a war-torn, impoverished Southeast Asian nation still suffering from the legacies of brutal genocide. “She said that right in front of the children,” Cox adds. “They cried for days afterwards.”
They aren’t crying any longer. Sok Lim and Chanthai have found a new home at Cox’s Sunrise Village, a leafy resort-like facility on 10 hectares of land located a halfhour drive from the capital Phnom Penh, with its own swimming pool, tennis court, soccer field, playgrounds, and well-stocked library. Like the home’s 124 other current residents, who range in age from toddlers to 18-year-olds, the abandoned siblings attend a nearby private school and take English and arts classes at the orphanage. Some weekends, they take trips to the beach for a day or two of splashing good fun.
“How can you not love beautiful children like these?” Cox coos, as Sok Lim scrambles up onto her lap to hug her. He then scurries away only to return with a flower he’s picked from one of the orphanage’s gardens. She pins the flower jauntily behind an ear. “He’s gonna be a gallant young man, this one,” she observes fondly.
Meanwhile, Sok Lim’s best friend, Sopheak, a mischievous five-year-old with curly locks and the girlishly pretty features of a Raphael cherub, steals a sip from Cox’s cappuccino. She chuckles. “Here, have a cookie, too,” she offers the boy. “Both his parents died of AIDS. He’s HIV-negative, but his extended family rejected him,” she explains to The Jerusalem Report.
Two years ago, Cox opened a brand-new home for HIV-positive children in the seaside resort town of Sihanoukville. Some 80 children, most of whom had been infected by their parents, live there in idyllic surroundings on five hectares of private land.
They receive anti-retroviral medication and, just like any other youngsters, go to school, play sports and pursue hobbies.
“There’s plenty of prejudice in this country about disease,” Cox notes. “Sick children are often rejected by their families.
Sometimes poor parents can’t pay for their kids’ medication so they just abandon them at hospital wards.”
A heavyset woman with a defiantly flamboyant streak, Cox, 69, strikes an eye-catching figure. She has a penchant for carbuncled rings, beaded necklaces and clunky bangles, while her hair, dyed a startling carrot red, is bunched into a sassy, aslant topknot held in place by a white chopstick.
That last fashion touch has been occasioned by necessity: Four years ago, chemotherapy for breast cancer, for which she also underwent a double mastectomy, thinned a once more luxurious mane. She also suffers from a heart condition and has had “a couple of near-stroke events,” as she puts it.
“When my time’s up, I want my ashes scattered in that pond over there,” Cox says matter-of-factly, indicating a shallow pool of water flecked with hyacinths and lotus pads in the front yard. “I’ll be watching over the children from there.”
But she still has plenty of life left in her; the cancer appears to be in remission and her health problems haven’t slowed her down one bit. Although 50 Cambodian staffers, from house mothers to administrators, work at Sunrise Children’s Village, Cox looks after her charges like a mother hen guarding her brood. She checks their homework and school reports, cheers them on in their studies and hobbies, and chides them if they misbehave. Sometimes, she tucks the younger ones in at night.
“He’s trouble, this one,” Cox indicates Doo, a gawky youth on his way to a game of soccer on the orphanage’s pitch. He’s 16 and still in fourth grade. “His mother runs a brothel, we think. He’s been here since he was two. He came back once from a visit home with cigarette burns.”
Doo is hardly alone among her charges to have been a victim of domestic abuse.
“These are all damaged children – abused, discarded, neglected, unloved, unwanted,” Cox explains. “Every adult has harmed them in some way so they’ve grown fearful and distrustful. Some of them, when they come here, if you try to hug them, they scream. They may not even look at me at first.”
She’s also taken in children with severe mental and physical disabilities. “We’ve got kids with fetal alcohol syndrome, meningitis, acid burns, polio, hepatitis, brittle-bone disease, Asperger’s,” she notes. “We’ve also got a lot of emotionally disturbed kids.”
They all receive medical care and counseling.
“We focus on their safety and health,” explains Seng Bunsopheap, the orphanage’s childcare program officer. “But, most of all, we give them love and care.”
OVER THE years, Cox has lost some children to disease. “We gave them beautiful send-offs,” she says as she flips open a photo album to a picture of a young boy lying feebly on his side in bed. “He was a delightful child. He had cerebral palsy and died one night in his sleep,” Cox remembers.
“You get your emotions attacked here all the time.”
“Geraldine is a remarkable woman, a very driven and passionate character,” Rabbi Dovid Slavin, a Lubavitcher Hasid who is director of the Rabbinical College of Sydney and serves as both a “spiritual adviser” and a fundraiser for Cox, attests to The Report in a phone interview. “We raise funds for her orphanages and spread the word about her work in Cambodia,” says Slavin, who, with his wife Laya, runs Our Big Kitchen, a charity they launched at Sydney’s Yeshiva Center that feeds the needy (the food is strictly kosher but people of all faiths are welcome) and operates as a hub for nondenominational volunteer programs in town.
A relentless fundraiser, Cox regularly flies back to Australia to give motivational speeches at dinners, hobnob with the rich and famous, and hassle company bosses for donations. She does whatever it takes to raise the $1.2 million a year her orphanages need for operating costs.
“Some people don’t like me. They see me as a loud and pushy fat lady with her sillyred hair,” she concedes. “But that’s who I am. I’d never ask for myself, but it’s easy to ask for the children. I just take a look at them and think, ‘They deserve a good life and they’re gonna get it!’” Cox won’t let even the grim reaper stop her from raising funds to ensure that the orphanages, all three of which are privately run, will carry on without her. Just in case, she’s recorded fund-raising videos for posthumous use with a playful admonition to sponsors: “If you thought me being dead was gonna stop me from asking for money, think again.”
Cox has walked few straight paths in her life and she came to embrace her Jewish roots through a circuitous route, as well.
Born into a working-class Catholic family in Adelaide to a stern milkman father who looked askance at minorities, she did not learn until she was in her early twenties that her maternal grandmother (née Vogelstein) was a German-Jewish refugee who had kept her heritage secret in the face of pervasive racism in Australia at the time.
It was 1967 and smitten by Israel’s heroic military exploits during the Six Day War, the rebellious young woman, then 22, latched onto her newfound identity despite objections within her family. “My two elder sisters are in denial about our roots. We do not speak about it,” notes Cox, who even visited Israel in an unsuccessful attempt to track down some long-lost Jewish relatives.
A few years ago, in a naming ceremony officiated by Slavin, Cox adopted the Jewish name Golda, chosen in honor of former prime minister Golda Meir. “She was a champion among women worldwide and I admired her strength and sense of purpose for the Jewish people,” Cox says, standing near bookshelves in her traditional Khmer teakwood house on stilts, inside Sunrise Village where Martin Gilbert’s “Atlas of Jewish History,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “Jewish Wisdom,” and several tomes on the Kabbala are given pride of place.
These are sandwiched between volumes of erotica and biographies of Leonard Cohen, which testify to some of her other interests.
“Sometimes I get naked at night, stand there with a glass of champagne and sing [the Puccini aria] Nessun Dorma (‘None shall sleep’),” she offers unprompted, indicating her home’s balcony at the back overlooking a fish pond and a forlorn landscape of weed-strewn pastures and rice paddies. “My only audience is the frogs andthe dogs.”
“Geraldine is a fiercely proud Jewish woman,” Slavin says. “What she does [in Cambodia] fits in a broader Jewish context of trying to repair the world (according to the concept of tikun olam).”
In Melbourne, too, Cox has a good rapport with a local ultra-Orthodox rabbi. “She’s helped raise funds for the restoration of the historic (137-year-old) East Melbourne Synagogue, one of the oldest shuls in the southern hemisphere,” Rabbi Dovid Gutnick, head of the local Jewish congregation, tells The Report. “In the Torah, one of the most oft-repeated mitzvot is the commandment to care for orphans and strangers,” Gutnick adds. “In her unique way, Geraldine has dedicated her life to one of the most fundamental Jewish traits.”
Still, she’s no ba’alat teshuva (penitent).
“I tried keeping a kosher kitchen but it was too hard,” she concedes. A self-confessed “hedonist,” Cox went through a rapid series of lovers and boyfriends of various ethnic origins and nationalities in her youth before ending up in a short-lived marriage with an Iranian computer programmer – “the only Shi’ite alcoholic in Iran,” as she puts it.
Working as a secretary for Australia’s diplomatic corps, she lived lavishly, travelled first-class, and would “arrive at every foreign post drunk as a skunk” on the free champagne served aboard. She went on shopping binges, splurging on mink coats and expensive jewelry. “I cared only about myself and never thought of giving to charity.
That was the kind of person I was back then,” she recalls. “But I’d return home and have this emptiness, this big hole in my life.”
She wanted children but for biological reasons couldn’t have them. In 1971, while working at Australia’s Embassy in Phnom Penh during the Vietnam War, she adopted a seven-month-old Cambodian girl, Lisa, who would turn out to suffer from a variety of severe congenital diseases. Now 44, Lisa lives in a special-needs home in Australia requiring 24-hour care.
“She’s away with the fairies and doesn’teven recognize me,” Cox laments. “Everything I did back then turned sour.”
Then, in 1993, Cox returned as a tourist to Cambodia. The country was still in the throes of the bloody civil war that ensued after the brutal rule of the Maoist Khmer Rouge movement in the late 1970s during which some two million people perished on Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. After witnessing the plight of children at a rural orphanage in remote Banteay Meanchey province, smack in the middle of a landmine-infested Khmer Rouge guerilla stronghold, the Australian woman, who was now working for Chase Manhattan Bank in Sydney, soon returned to hand out cartons of food, supplies and gifts.
The kids started calling the generously proportioned foreigner Madai Thom Thom (“Big Big Mother” in Khmer), marveling at her fiery red hair and snuggling up to her for comfort. Here were the children, Cox realized, she had always wanted in her life. She began managing the orphanage from afar and kept returning.
WITH RAMPANT violence all around and scores of landmines taking unsuspecting victims, each new day could be like another round of Russian roulette. One day a young girl succumbed to a virulent form of malaria; another, a teen boy was shot dead outside the orphanage by two Maoist guerillas who hacked him up on the spot and cannibalized his liver in front of his younger brother in the old Khmer belief that feasting on an enemy’s liver would give them strength and courage in battle. Yet, for all that, Cox’s young charges, most of whom had been traumatized, slowly began to heal and blossom, and she found a new calling in helping them.
In 1996, while looking after one of her teenaged protégés who was dying of an incurable blood disorder, Cox decided to move permanently to Cambodia to dedicate herself fully to the orphanage, which had been relocated to Phnom Penh under the patronage of Princess Marie, wife of the country’s co-prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh who was ruling the country with Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerilla turned politician, in a volatile power-sharing arrangement. A year later Hun Sen ousted the prince in a bloody coup, leaving Cox without her palace backers and her orphanage exposed to the mercy of marauding army soldiers who stormed the royally sponsored orphanage, looting and ransacking the premises.
A friend of the royals, Cox publicly branded Hun Sen “a thug, a murderer and a gangster, no better than Pol Pot.” But soon, in a desperate gamble, she decided to throw herself at the strongman’s mercy for the sake of her orphanage, which had lost the right to the plot of land where it stood and whose young residents were being harassed by trigger-happy soldiers and officious bureaucrats.
Cox sought an audience with Hun Sen and prostrated herself before him in a calculated gesture of supplicant self-debasement she had seen actress Meryl Streep perform in the movie “Out of Africa.” “I begged him to help the children,” she recalls. “He was visibly moved.”
They’ve been friends ever since. “He calls me ‘big sister,’ I call him ‘little brother,’” she attests. A naturalized Cambodian citizen, she’s a card-carrying member of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
In 2000, Cox was awarded the Order of Australia, her homeland’s highest honor, for her humanitarian work and has since won a host of other awards. But she’s also had her critics. Her friendship with Hun Sen has raised eyebrows among Cambodia’s expat community. He donated the land for Cox’s orphanage in Kandal province and later built her an airy teakwood house there. The land was once the site of a military barracks and when Cox took it over she found the pond upfront housed the remains of unidentified locals, perhaps dispatched in summary executions during the coup of 1997. These days, only frogs and fish inhabit its waters.
Recently, Cambodia’s prime minister procured another plot of land for Cox in Sihanoukville, where she opened an orphanage for HIV-positive children in 2012.
The Australian woman is also managing a formerly government-run orphanage in the town of Siep Reap, which she had taken over with Hun Sen’s help after seeing its young residents, mostly children rescued from traffickers, languishing neglected and maltreated.
She does not harbor illusions about her powerful backer. “Hun Sen has done some terrible things. He’s killed people, probably hundreds of them,” Cox concedes. “But how can we judge him without walking in his shoes? He gives us protection and has given us two plots of land and free electricity from the main supplies. He gives our children free passports and has agreed to have airport fees waived for them when they travel to Australia.”
Cox’s oldest protégé is now 37 and works at the check-in desk at Phnom Penh International Airport. “Every time I’m travelling, I ring him up,” Cox notes. “I tell him, ‘Mom’s gonna be on the Malaysian Air flight tomorrow.
Change your shift because I have a big load of excess baggage and I’m not gonna pay for it.’ He says, ‘All right, Mom, I’ll be there.’” Several other former residents regularly return bearing gifts for the children or come to give them classes or to play with them.
“They contribute in whatever ways they can,” Cox says.
Today it’s Roth Hak Sary’s turn to come on a visit. “I always come back because I miss Mom [Cox] and my friends,” explains the 23-year-old former resident of the orphanage.
When she was a child, Roth’s legs were crippled by polio and, after her father died from stepping on a landmine, her family came to see the disabled girl as a burden.
“My uncle left me at a market and went away,” she recalls. “Mom saw me [at a place for children with polio in 1999] and brought me here.”
She now works at a school in Phnom Penh, is happily married, and is expecting a child. Once she was confined to a wheelchair; now, thanks to corrective surgery obtained for her by Cox, she can walk upright with the help of calipers. “My life is so much better than before because of Mom,” the young woman says. “She’s a very kind person.”
Cox takes such compliments in stride. “I do have an ego and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved here,” she says. “But the children saved me a lot more than I saved them. I was headed for an empty life of hedonism and they have given me love and meaning to my life.” 