Saturday, 3 July 2010

Big Life, Big Heart

via Khmer NZ News Media

Denise Carter
Saturday, July 3, 2010
© The Cairns Post

Geraldine Cox has squeezed more lives into her one lifetime than we could ever count.

She's known as "big mum" by the children of her Sunrise orphanages in Cambodia.

And why?

"Because I'm big," Geraldine Cox says, then chuckles. "When I get bigger, they call me Big, Big Mum."

In truth, everything is big about this woman.

Her autobiography, Home is where the Heart is, could easily have been called Big Life, Big Heart because Geraldine has lived many lives thus far, and her all-encompassing love for the 200 children in her care is extraordinary.

She was born in Adelaide, and co-founded The Australia Cambodia Foundation in 1993 after seeing the suffering of the children of Phnom Penh as a result of war and famine.

The SBS documentary, My Khmer Heart, about her work, won the Hollywood Film Festival Documentary of the Year Award in 2000 and in the same year her efforts were recognised when she became a Member of the Order of Australia.

When I first speak with Geraldine, it is by phone.

Her voice catches when she tells me she has had to return to Cambodia for the cremation of a boy whom she had known and raised since he was just four years old, who was killed in a motorbike accident.

"He was very special," she says.

Later, after the Cairns Business Women's Lunch on Tuesday, part of one of her many fundraising missions to Australia, she tells me of Prak Kirirak's appalling story, one that is indicative of the conditions in which some children live in Cambodia.

"He was found in a refugee camp eating soap," Geraldine says. "He had no living memory of any family or anyone looking after him."

When he was brought back to the Sunrise village, he was found to have "a ring of cigarette burns on his scrotum".

"Later on, he had disciplinary problems and he was a bit lost, but he had so much talent."

Prak Kirirak was a budding artist and Geraldine had just sold some of his paintings for $1500.

Enough, she says, for the 22-year-old to live on for a year. But he died before realising his success.

He is the 10th child she has lost among the children she has nurtured over 15 years. I

It's a heartache that would make most people claim burnout and head back to the comforts of Australian life.

But Geraldine says her work is well worth her life's toil because of the rewards of seeing the children grow up and find a place in the world.

"I have one boy studying law in Sydney University, another studying arts-media at Queensland University, a boy at Flinders studying film, one doing hotel management in Sydney and two girls going to private school doing Grade 12."

These achievements would seem pretty average for an Australian child but for a Cambodian child, one of whom, for example, is the son of a third generation rice farmer who never held a pen, they are gargantuan.

In the majority of cases, however, Geraldine just makes sure her children find good jobs.

In what could be described as a self-created society, her children have grown up to work as dental nurses, real estate brokers, hospitality workers, car mechanics, and IT workers.

It must seem a far cry from Geraldine's first effort, which was to raise $13,000 to start up the initial orphanage in Phnom Penh, and eons away from her first posting in Cambodia with the Department of Foreign Affairs in the early 70s when the Vietnam War was still in full swing.

It was then, despite the enticing distractions of great dinner parties and hot lovers, she discovered the living conditions of children and the struggles of the Cambodian people, which she was unable to get out of her mind.

Geraldine saw many horrors on her subsequent postings between Cambodia, Iran, the Philippines and Thailand, including human heads mounted on stools and soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning.

Many years later, she was still in the midst of danger when she was in Cambodia during a coup in 1997, but she probably coped better than most because she thrives on action.

"A lot of my boyfriends have said I'm masculine in a lot of ways," she says.

"I must have more testosterone because I like taking risks.

In fact if I go a whole six months and no-one mugs me, I think what, does no-one love me any more?'," she says, laughing.

The coup turned out to be fortunate for Geraldine because the international media interest in her testimony made her realise she could do more for her orphans if she could just tell her story.

She moved to Cambodia full-time in 1998, having quit her corporate job in Sydney, and became a permanent citizen of the country.

By 2000, her story became known with the release of My Khmer Heart and the publication of Home is where the Heart is.

The book details her extraordinary love of children and her fight to build and maintain two orphanages.

It also covers more personal details of her life, such as her desire to have children of her own from the age of 23, and the extraordinary lengths to which she went to have a child, even resorting to having unprotected sex with prostitutes.
Such personal information is in her book for practical reasons.

"I was starting to get a profile, and I thought, if I don't say everything, someone will cut me down," she says.

That's probably one of the most endearing qualities in Geraldine: despite her incredible work she certainly doesn't portray herself as a saint.

She is a red-blooded woman who has been married, divorced, has had many lovers, who admits her flaws, and who divulges her most painful and darkest moments, such as when she considered killing herself and a child she adopted with severe cerebral palsy out of pure desperation because she couldn't help the child.

And she is far from a shrinking violet.

There's a part of her book where she writes about disrobing after a night out, standing naked atop a table in front of her husband-to-be, and saying; "I'm already 39 darling. I want you to understand that my body is never going to be better than it is tonight".

It will make a great scene if her story ever becomes a movie, highly likely considering she is writing a script in the coming year.

Has she any regrets? Would she not have had a more comfortable life living in Australia and, say, being a suburban housewife?

"No, no," Geraldine says. "You couldn't have a partner and do what I do. I'd like a man for weddings, funerals and tours like this, and for the rest of the time he can bugger off."

Despite the bravado, the past few months have been difficult. Geraldine had a double mastectomy in November and is now recovering from breast cancer with a course of hormones.

"I'm not as sprightly as I used to be," she says. "I get physically tired, especially after the operation, but I never get tired talking about the kids."

In April, her 95-year-old mother died, and now she has been further heartbroken by the death of Prak Kirirak.
"Even my dog died in May," she says.

"I miss the dog more than I missed my husband after our divorce."

Yet she does not stop. There's the planned third home in Cambodia, this time for 180 children with AIDS. "We start building in July," Geraldine says.

"They are children who have been abandoned in hospitals because they have been born with AIDS."

The home will provide medical care for the children, some of whom also suffer from tuberculosis, with the drugs provided by The Clinton Foundation.

Then there's that movie script.

In 2000, following the publication of her autobiography, Matt Damon and Danny Glover wanted the rights to make her story into a movie. She declined because they would change her story too much. Yes, she had the gall to turn down Matt Damon.

"I am writing it in my spare time and it will take about a year," she says.

Does she have spare time?

She smiles. "No, I don't."

But I doubt this will stop her. You just can't keep a strong woman down.

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