‘These children need to be loved’: Geraldine Cox on staring down her darkest days

I'm in an upmarket French restaurant on a steamy evening in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, and Geraldine Cox is watching me eat. It's not a comfortable sensation. "Are you going to finish that off?" she asks suddenly, waving at a dish of fish and noodles between us. I sense, somehow, that Yes isn't the right answer. So I say No.

"Good!" responds the Australian known for championing orphans in one of the world's poorest countries. She gestures to a hovering waiter to pack up the food. "There's a lot of people at home who'll enjoy that," she says happily. I put down my chopsticks, and nod to the waiter that he can add the other dishes to the feast, too. I know when I'm beaten.

“After spending 25 years dedicated tothe children, it really looked as though it might finally all fall in a heap.”Credit:James Brickwood

It's not a feeling with which the woman in front of me is particularly familiar. As the head of a charity that looks after impoverished and vulnerable kids in Cambodia, she's fought like a lioness to protect them, often against overwhelming odds. When 60 children were abandoned at an orphanage by their royal patron and its staff, who fled after a coup, she insisted on staying with them despite embassy officials' entreaties to evacuate, and then stared down a tankful of AK-47-waving rebel soldiers until they put down their guns and left. Finally, she turned pussycat to negotiate an understanding with the country's longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen, to guarantee them a permanent safe home.

"Never say 'no' to Geraldine," I'd been warned by the Australian accountant-banker-lawyer George Passas, who now acts as CEO of her charity, Sunrise Cambodia. "She will never take 'no' for an answer. Phrases like 'It can't be done' or 'It's not possible' aren't in her vocabulary. She'll often say that she'll give up on these kids over her dead body. And, believe me, she means it."

This evening, however, I'm catching a rare glimpse of vulnerability behind that bold, boisterously determined front. Cox, 74, has just faced the darkest 18 months of her life, and only now does she believe she's emerging into the light. Indeed, when she entered the restaurant, I'd been expecting the big, bumptious redhead of old I'd seen several times on television, with the loud voice, even louder laugh and the trademark chopstick stuck through the tight bun on her head. The chopstick is still there, but almost everything else is changed. She's now slim and surprisingly small in a black skirt and top with a glittery gold pattern on the front, much more softly spoken and … kind of bruised.

"This has been a worse time for me than anything that happened before," she says, looking tired. "After spending 25 years dedicated to the children, it really looked as though it might finally all fall in a heap, that I might lose everything. I couldn't sleep. I lost weight. I was off food and I even almost lost my sense of humour, which was pretty tragic. It's been terrible."

That so much trouble came from the most unexpected direction made it even more of a shock. You might even call it friendly fire. In 2017, the United Nations' Children's Fund UNICEF declared war on many orphanages around the world, especially in south-east Asia, and Cambodia in particular, after an investigation uncovered abhorrent practices. They found that most of the "orphans" in care in Cambodia had at least one parent, but were being kept in institutions as a way of earning money for their corrupt owners and managers. Foreign tourists were bussed in to visit and encouraged to donate cash, buy handicrafts and leave gifts after talking with the children or being entertained by their dancing or singing – money which the orphanage owners would purloin, passing on a small percentage to parents.

Even more terribly, some of the children at Cambodia's 406 orphanages, a number that had risen by 60 per cent in a decade, were being starved, physically abused, sometimes sexually, and UNICEF found evidence of some being hired out for sex tourism or trafficked as sex slaves.

The ensuing outcry engulfed all orphanages, even Cox's operation, which was declared completely free of any adverse finding. "Geraldine Cox is a good person and [her work is] absolutely not in the category of the bad orphanages," confirms Bruce Grant, UNICEF's chief of child protection in Cambodia. But while nearly 40 per cent of the corrupt orphanages were closed down, leaving 252 in existence, the storm of publicity consumed even the most honourable operators, and proved catastrophic. Almost overnight, Cox watched donations from her loyal supporters in Australia, who have always made up the bulk of her funds, plunge by a devastating 30 per cent.

"That was a terrible blow for her," says one of her sponsors, Melburnian Maree McEvoy, who runs her own marketing business. "No one had any doubt at all about the credibility of her operation, but suddenly orphanages in Cambodia in general had a bit of a bad smell about them." Cox was forced to make drastic cuts and restructure her operations, moving from five orphanages housing more than 200 children to two "residential centres" for only 120 in July last year. " 'Orphanage' is now a dirty word," she says, not without a trace of bitterness.

With staff numbers reduced from 92 to 56, she also switched from a model of residential care with some outreach work, to one that operates many more community programs. As a result, she now helps about 2000 children near her two centres in Kandal, a 40-minute drive south-east of Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap in the north, through education, development, music, sport, computer training and child support programs. She also has an early learning centre attached to the orphanage for younger children, which frees up their older brothers and sisters to go to school rather than look after siblings. Today, her kids are aged from six to 22, with the older ones supported as they study at university.

But it's been a struggle. It costs about $2 million a year to keep everything going, and any shortfalls put her under enormous pressure. In her darkest hour in late 2017, she thought she'd have to close down her whole operation. "What am I going to tell them, where are they going to go?" she recalls asking herself, her voice trembling, as she dabs at her eyes with the restaurant napkin. "I'd have to transfer them to government centres where they'd no longer have music and arts and computers, and I wouldn't be able to support the older ones finishing their degrees."

To make things even worse, Prime Minister Hun Sen had transferred some of the children from the closed orphanages to Cox's care without any financial support. "My biggest fear was having to tell the children I'd have to close down," Cox says. "I felt I'd be letting them down completely and, as well, 25 years of my life's work would go down the drain."

On a chilly March evening, a month later, Geraldine Cox is in Sydney, weaving her way around a crowd of potential benefactors in a long pink flowered gown in the large lounge room of one of her supporters' homes in a wealthy enclave of the eastern suburbs. She's chatting with an untouched glass of white wine in hand, smiling and laughing. Her mission is, however, deadly earnest. She's doing one of the things she does best: pleading for funds. Over the past 18 months, whenever she can leave either of her Sunrise children's villages, she's been doing this almost non-stop around Australia; talking to people, phoning them, speaking at events, attending functions and writing letters. Even when her niece insisted on taking her on a short cruise off Queensland last year – her first holiday since 1993 – she couldn't help talking to the other passengers about her mission in life, and one fellow guest ended up giving her charity $75,000.

"It was a holiday, but you have to take opportunities when they come," Cox says, looking unabashed. As a result of all her efforts, many of her departing sponsors have been persuaded to return, a number have agreed to make bequests in their wills and new donors have been lured into the fold. The boost in funds has gone a long way to helping her dig her way out of the worry she'd have to further trim her operation.

After an hour of working the room, she's introduced to make a formal speech. She talks about her colourful life pre-orphanage, peppered with numerous lovers, champagne and wild parties, and then tells the story of the rehabilitation of a little girl who had acid thrown on her face so she might make more money begging; a young gay boy who was treated as an outcast but who, after a spell under her care, is now making an excellent living as a make-up artist on movies; another kid who's just graduated with a degree in agricultural science; and others who are excelling in trades and sport. "Most of you are parents and if you could see how kids in Cambodia live compared to what your kids have, you'd be shocked," she says. "Please help me help these kids to have a chance in life, to have a chance to be successful. What you give will change their futures."

I sometimes think I’m just a mendicant, a professional beggar.

A man raises his hand. "I'd like to donate $1000 now to you," he declares. "I've always liked women with red hair." There's a murmur of laughter around the room, but others come forward to pledge donations, too. Later, the first man agrees to commit to $1000 a year instead of a one-off contribution. "I sometimes think I'm just a mendicant, a professional beggar," Cox confides at the end of the evening. "But even so, I'm pretty bloody good at it!"

Cox and close friend Ray Martin.

Sandra Thoma, the owner of a children's play centre in north-west Sydney who is staging this fundraising evening in her home, agrees. She first saw Cox speak at an event 20 years ago, and has never forgotten it. She ended up sponsoring three children, each the same age and gender as her own three. In 2017, one of them went over during his gap year before university to volunteer for Cox as a photographer, documenting each of the kids under her care. "I understood what UNICEF had done [with its 2017 investigation] as there are other places that aren't as reputable as hers but, I can tell you, Geraldine's operation is incredible," Thoma says. "Her organisation is a lean, keen fighting machine that doesn't waste a cent, and the welfare of those kids and their education is at the centre of everything she does. Geraldine's morals and values are rock-solid. Those children adore her, and she will do anything for them. I would never support her as much as I do if I didn't have complete and utter faith in her."

Broadcaster Ray Martin has become one of Cox's closest confidants in the 12 years since he first interviewed her for 60 Minutes. He is full of admiration, yet is in no doubt how much the recent scandals have cost innocent bystanders like Cox. "She's hard to say 'no' to, and she's a tough woman and an incredible operator," he says. "But she always has to work so hard for funding. She puts her heart and soul into looking after the kids, but then she has to go out and beat the drum and hold out a tin can to be able to continue."

"She does such great work, like Fred Hollows, but when he was running low, he'd shout to other people, 'You bloody go out and get the money!' But with Geraldine, there's just her. She looks after all the babies and brings up the kids, and then has to go out with her begging bowl. There's a lot of crying she does unseen by the rest of the world, and I know how anxious she's been about being able to continue."

A preschool class at Kandal province.Credit:Courtesy of Sunrise Australia

Geraldine Cox first went to Cambodia with the Australian government's Department of Foreign Affairs as a 26-year-old secretary in 1971. She'd been hoping for a rather more glamorous posting to Paris or Rome. Instead, the Adelaide girl, who left school at 15 when her dad lost his business, ended up in Phnom Penh at a time when the country was being bombed by the Americans and had the Vietnam War raging on its border. "There was no security in those days and we'd often walk through a door that someone would later blow up," says Michael Mann, who served with her as a member of the Australian diplomatic corps in Cambodia. "There'd be shoot-outs on the way to the airport, bullet holes in the walls, bombs going off, but Gerry thrived in that environment. She took it all in her stride."

She fell in love with Cambodia and couldn't get the country out of her mind when she went on to serve in Bangkok, Manila, Tehran and Washington, before moving to Sydney for a spell with the Chase Manhattan Bank as a personal assistant. She led a glamorous life with fast cars, beautiful clothes and handsome lovers, but felt somehow empty and unfulfilled. Her long-term boyfriend left her when they discovered she couldn't have children and she was eventually fired from the bank "when I was 50, fat and f…ed", as she's fond of saying. She admits she just lost interest in the work, bored with the humdrum routine and too preoccupied daydreaming about Cambodia.

One of her two older sisters, Sandra Powell, once told her how amazing she thought her life was. "But she said she'd give it all away if she could have a husband and a couple of children," Powell says. "And now she has thousands of children. I could never have imagined her doing what she's doing now." Cox never used to be very practical, Powell recounts. She once took a vacuum cleaner back to the shop as she said it was faulty – only to discover that you actually have to empty them to keep them going. Another time, she lost her car in a car park. She's blocked up her sink by trying to wash wax off her candlesticks. "And one time when she was working in an opal mine in Coober Pedy with my older sister and brother-in-law, before she went to Foreign Affairs, she kept being pestered for a date by a man with a beard. So she set it alight."

When the bank job finished in 1995, Cox decided to return to Cambodia. She found a job with Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the royal politician who shared the rule of Cambodia as the First Prime Minister with the Second PM, Hun Sen, volunteering in her spare time at a local orphanage run by the prince's wife, Princess Marie. Then came the coup of 1997 in which the royals were deposed and fled the country. Cox refused to leave the 60 orphans behind. She criticised Hun Sen, the leader of the coup, but later made her peace to the point where he gave her some ex-military land for her first orphanage and built her a house on site.

Ever since, the kids have known her as Big Mum, while her profile has soared. She's been featured twice on Australian Story. Her autobiography, Home Is Where The Heart Is, was published in 2000, the year she was made a member of the Order of Australia, and was the subject of an award-winning documentary, My Khmer Heart. She's addressed the United Nations twice in Bangkok in the past two years alone, as well as being invited to speak at universities, foundations and conferences around the world.

Cox addressing the UN University Scholars Leadership Symposium in Thailand, 2017.

Yet the orphanage controversy isn't quite over. UNICEF is determined to see more children returned to parents, to extended families, back into the community or given to foster or adoptive parents instead of staying in institutions. "Residential care is an option of last resort," says Bruce Grant. "We want every effort made to put children into a family environment." Cox has done her best to comply, but points out that some kids came to her to escape abuse and violence back home, so she can't countenance them going back. Another child was sent back to a village with no electricity or running water and, when Cox visited him, she discovered the villagers had sold his computer and weren't giving him enough to eat. Another boy had been put to work by his step-parents, crushing rocks. Despite her pleas, she wasn't allowed to take him back, either. But a gay boy who was being abused by his stepfather walked for a day to return to her fold – and for those kids with disabilities, or who were HIV-positive, there was no alternative, anyway.

The Cambodian government is supportive, awarding her centres a score of 95 to 96 per cent at their yearly inspections. "The orphans of Cambodia have a good chance with a mother like her," PM Hun Sen has declared. The Australian government, however, has been rather less obliging. Lobbied by billionaire Andrew Forrest, who set up the Walk Free Foundation after his daughter Grace volunteered at a Nepalese orphanage and discovered that children were being sold as sex slaves, the then Attorney-General, senator George Brandis, ordered an inquiry by the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia, which considered the overseas orphanages issue. It called two other people in the field to give evidence, refusing Cox's written pleas to be allowed to address the committee.

"She was terribly hurt by that," says Sunrise's George Passas. "When you think the Cambodian Prime Minister regards her operations as the best model for the country, she's the best known and the real deal and has been doing it for nearly 25 years now, it was such an inequity." Even today, everyone's unsure why that was allowed to happen. "The hearings on orphanages weren't on till later in the inquiry," explains the committee secretary James Rees. "There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about who got to speak. The people who were called might have been the ones available at the time but I can't explain to you why she [Cox] was never called. The inquiry secretary at the time is no longer with us. No one knows."

As a result of that inquiry, a law against modern slavery was passed, and a list was set to be issued of genuine and approved institutions overseas. "Hopefully that will help legitimise those centres that are doing the right thing," says the then committee chair Chris Crewther, the former federal Liberal member for Dunkley in Victoria who lost his seat at the May election. "I imagine Geraldine Cox will be on that list and I can imagine how important it will be for people like her." Unfortunately, the process has been delayed by a cabinet reshuffle. "We were hoping the list would have been out by the end of last year but now, with the election … We don't know when it will happen," Crewther admits.

Cox is given a rapturous welcome by her kids.Credit:Courtesy of Sunrise Australia

A bunch of kids yell with excitement when they see Geraldine Cox walking back through the doors of the children's centre in Kandal, and fling themselves at her. She hugs them all, thrilled by such a warm welcome. It's obvious that here is where she's happiest. "That always happens," says Ray Martin. "The kids clamp on to her and clamber all over her; it is a family and she really is their mum or grandmother."

Cox seems to have a natural way with them all. One little boy was terribly withdrawn when he arrived, but she spent hours sitting with him and talking until he came out of his shell. Following a double mastectomy and five years of drug therapy after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2009, Cox went straight to the two girls who had been disfigured in separate acid attacks. "Look!" she said, showing them her scars. "Now I'm like you! Just not quite as beautiful!"

Her driver, however, was less impressed. Pulled over by police on her way back from hospital for not wearing a seatbelt, she pulled up her top to show them the scars so she wouldn't have to pay a fine. When she was caught again a few days later, she did the same. "The third time I was stopped, my driver begged me to pay the fine instead," she guffaws.

She's also been diagnosed with a heart condition, so underwent gastric banding surgery in 2013, with her weight falling from 125 to 68 kilograms. Melbourne-based supporter Fran Haarsma, a video producer and writer, says it was yet another indication that she'd do anything for the kids. "She can't afford to die and leave them," she says. "But it's hard. She's always loved food, but that was another sacrifice she was prepared to make, and she doesn't enjoy the taste of alcohol now either, as a result of those cancer drugs."

Cox's indomitable spirit, however, remains despite the setbacks. "It'd be difficult to ever find another Gerry," says Michael Mann, who served as Australian Ambassador to Vietnam and Laos. "I once compared her to Mother Teresa … I think they would have got on really, really well. She never gave up, either."

Cox is now confident she's over the worst. Just the day before, she received a $10,000 cheque as a result of a barbecue she attended in Sydney. Now writing a second book and fantasising about someone like Rupert Murdoch or Gina Rinehart phoning her to pledge a donation of $1 million – or more – a year, she feels her kids are safe for the moment. "Life is all hills and valley and I think I'm just coming out of the valley now," she smiles. "Besides, I couldn't afford not to. These children need food, and an education, and to be loved. I can't let them down."

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