Recently I joined around 100 other members of the Catalyst Network Limited, an initiative of young Sydney-based professionals and business people from both sides of the Tasman. They help raise awareness as well as money for a variety of charities.
On Wednesday evening 3 May, we gathered to listen to an Australian woman who chooses to make a difference to the lives of hundreds of young people.
Geraldine Cox manages the Sunrise Children’s Village in Cambodia, a project supported by the Australia-Cambodia Foundation. Geraldine shared with us something of her life as well as the lives of young Cambodians she has been able to support.
Cambodia is a tragic place which seems to attract four classes of people we may refer to as the four M’s – missionaries, mercenaries, misfits and masochists. Geraldine describes herself as a misfit. She is the daughter of a South Australian milkman who worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Asia, the Middle East and the United States for many years.
Geraldine’s first posting in Asia was in Cambodia during the early 1970’s, just when the Vietnam conflict had crossed the border. She was 25 years old at the time, and spent 2 years in the country before moving to her next posting.
Geraldine spent 3 years in Iran where she met and married someone she describes as “the only alcoholic Iranian Shia Muslim”, a chap named Mahmoud. She took Mahmoud on her next posting – 3 years in Washington which included a period during the hostage crisis when Iranians weren’t exactly the most popular people in the United States.
Geraldine says she enjoyed her time in Foreign Affairs – the cocktail parties, the politics, the first class travel and plenty of other perks. But somehow she always felt like something was missing. She left the Department and returned to Sydney where she started working in an international bank.
It’s pretty awful working in a field that provides about as much enjoyment as a Jew or Muslim would feel at a pork sausage convention. On top of hating her job, Geraldine had to go through the humiliation of being sacked hardly 3 days before her work colleagues had arranged a party to celebrate her 50th birthday.
Geraldine then entered what is commonly known as a mid-life crisis. She decided to return to Cambodia where she worked for various Australian companies. On weekends, she would engage her maternal instincts on Cambodian children living at an orphanage managed by the Cambodian Royal Family.
Eventually, Geraldine set up her orphanage (which she prefers to describe as a “Village”) which has been forced to move 6 times before finding its present permanent home. The Village takes in orphans, many of whom are victims of Cambodia’s long civil war.
Geraldine described the work of her Village and other similar projects as literally saving Cambodian children. She said that for illiterate and impoverished women without any economic support, life presents only a limited number or combination of grim choices – they could starve, beg, steal or become sex workers on the streets or in brothels.
She told of one Cambodian mother who approached the Village with her two daughters who were in their early teens. The woman begged the Village to take the two girls whom she could no longer afford to support without selling one to a brothel owner.
Geraldine agreed to take the girls, and their mother would visit on weekends. Only God knows which grim choice the mother took to feed and clothe herself, but she would laugh with joy on seeing her daughters doing their homework and enjoying the company of other children.
For young Cambodian male orphans, the choices weren’t much better. They were often sold as slaves to work in factories or farms in return for small amounts of food. One young orphan had his eyes gouged out, presumably to be used in the organ trade, before Geraldine could reach him.
Geraldine now lives permanently in Cambodia. Her friends describe her as a serious hedonist, though she says that her pleasures are now gained from less materialistic sources. At 25, she was dumped by her husband-to-be after she was informed by doctors that biological motherhood would be impossible.
Now, in her 60’s, Geraldine Cox has hundreds of young Cambodians who call her “mum”. She realises that true happiness and fulfilment in life comes from service to others. What the Sufis call khidmat is the only real way to achieve inner peace. Those of us unable to directly serve Geraldine’s children can at least do our bit by supporting, promoting and donating to her Village.
Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf
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