Jewish Australian Geraldine Cox looks after her Cambodian
orphans like a mother hen guarding her brood
Text and photos by Tibor Krausz Kandal Province, Cambodia
Jewish World
SOK LIM, a jolly little chap with a ready
smile and prematurely well-mannered
mien, arrived at the Sunrise Children’s Vil-
lage orphanage last July. His mother, an al-
coholic, brought six-year-old Sok Lim and
his fve-year-old sister, Chanthai, to Geral-
dine Cox, the children’s home founder, in-
tent on getting rid of them.
“She said, ‘I have a new husband and he
doesn’t want them so I don’t want them ei-
ther. 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, impover-
ished 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 fa-
cility on 10 hectares of land located a half-
hour drive from the capital Phnom Penh,
with its own swimming pool, tennis court,
soccer feld, 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 scram-
bles up onto her lap to hug her. He then
scurries away only to return with a fower
he’s picked from one of the orphanage’s
gardens. She pins the fower jauntily behind
an ear. “He’s gonna be a gallant young man,
this one,” she observes fondly.
Meanwhile, Sok Lim’s best friend, So-
pheak, a mischievous fve-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 sea-
side resort town of Sihanoukville. Some 80
children, most of whom had been infected
by their parents, live there in idyllic sur-
roundings on fve 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 coun-
try about disease,” Cox notes. “Sick chil-
dren 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 defantly fam-
boyant streak, Cox, 69, strikes an eye-catch-
ing fgure. She has a penchant for carbun-
cled 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 under-
went 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 fecked 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 adminis-
trators, 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 fear-
ful 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
She’s also taken in children with severe
mental and physical disabilities. “We’ve got
kids with fetal alcohol syndrome, meningi-
tis, 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 counsel-
ing. “We focus on their safety and health,”
explains Seng Bunsopheap, the orphanage’s
childcare program offcer. “But, most of all,
we give them love and care.”
OVER THE years, Cox has lost some chil-
dren to disease. “We gave them beautiful
send-offs,” she says as she fips open a pho-
to album to a picture of a young boy lying
feebly on his side in bed. “He was a delight-
ful 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 Yeshi-
va Center that feeds the needy (the food is
strictly kosher but people of all faiths are
welcome) and operates as a hub for nonde-
nominational volunteer programs in town.
A relentless fundraiser, Cox regularly
fies 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 silly
Geraldine Cox, founder of Sunrise Children’s
Village, in Cambodia, with two of her young
protégés at the orphanage
red 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 private-
ly 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 he-
roic 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
offciated by Slavin, Cox adopted the Jew-
ish 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 Co-
hen, which testify to some of her other in-
terests. “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 unprompt-
ed, indicating her home’s balcony at the
back overlooking a fsh pond and a forlorn
landscape of weed-strewn pastures and rice
paddies. “My only audience is the frogs and
Jewish World
the dogs.”
“Geraldine is a fercely proud Jewish
woman,” Slavin says. “What she does [in
Cambodia] fts 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 Syn-
agogue, one of the oldest shuls in the south-
ern 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 funda-
mental 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, trav-
elled frst-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 char-
ity. 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’t
A resident caregiver with a young girl at the
orphanage; (left) Children during playtime at
Sunrise Children’s Village
even recognize me,” Cox laments. “Every-
thing 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
The kids started calling the generously
proportioned foreigner Madai Thom Thom
(“Big Big Mother” in Khmer), marveling at
her fery red hair and snuggling up to her for
comfort. Here were the children, Cox real-
ized, 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 malar-
ia; 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 en-
emy’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 blos-
som, and she found a new calling in helping
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 pa-
tronage of Princess Marie, wife of the coun-
try’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-shar-
ing arrangement. A year later Hun Sen
ousted the prince in a bloody coup, leaving
Cox without her palace backers and her or-
phanage exposed to the mercy of maraud-
ing army soldiers who stormed the royally
sponsored orphanage, looting and ransack-
ing the premises.
A friend of the royals, Cox publicly brand-
ed Hun Sen “a thug, a murderer and a gang-
ster, no better than Pol Pot.” But soon, in a
desperate gamble, she decided to throw her-
self 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 offcious bureau-
crats. Cox sought an audience with Hun Sen
and prostrated herself before him in a calcu-
lated 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 citi-
zen, 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 mili-
tary barracks and when Cox took it over she
found the pond upfront housed the remains
of unidentifed locals, perhaps dispatched
in summary executions during the coup of
1997. These days, only frogs and fsh inhab-
it its waters.
Recently, Cambodia’s prime minister
procured another plot of land for Cox in
Sihanoukville, where she opened an or-
phanage 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 tak-
en over with Hun Sen’s help after seeing its
young residents, mostly children rescued
from traffckers, languishing neglected and
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 elec-
tricity 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 Interna-
tional Airport. “Every time I’m travelling, I
ring him up,” Cox notes. “I tell him, ‘Mom’s
gonna be on the Malaysian Air fight tomor-
row. 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
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 or-
phanage. When she was a child, Roth’s legs
were crippled by polio and, after her father
died from stepping on a landmine, her fam-
ily came to see the disabled girl as a bur-
den. “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 confned to a wheel-
chair; now, thanks to corrective surgery
obtained for her by Cox, she can walk up-
right 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
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.” 
Jewish World

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