Australian school turns disadvantage to advantage for Cambodian orphans


An Australian exchange program is helping to change the lives of orphans in Cambodia.

Seventeen-year-old Phannat Phy only begun playing piano five years ago, learning entirely by ear.

He's already receiving standing ovations.

His performance at Central Coast Grammar's school assembly blew the audience away. 

The school hall roared with appplause as the entire crowd rose to their feet in awe of Phannat's talent.

Phannat Phy only began playing piano five years ago.

He is one of a generation of children in Cambodia living below the poverty line, many of whom are neglected and forced to the streets.

Since he was three, Phannat has been living under the care of Sunrise Cambodia, a charity that supports and educates at-risk children.

It was set up in the early 90's by Geraldine Cox.

"All of the children that have come have been affected in some way by feelings of abandonment, low self-worth, lack of confidence because there is a stigma attached to being an orphan in Cambodia," says Ms Cox. 

Geraldine Cox and the Sunrise Cambodia kids
Geraldine Cox and the Sunrise Cambodia kids
Sunrise Cambodia Facebook Page

Phannat is one of four teenagers from Sunrise Cambodia taking part in an Australian exchange program.

For a month, they attend school at New South Wales' Central Coast Grammar and stay with a local host family.

It's often the first time they've lived in a family setting.

"I feel like this is my own house and she is my mother. They are very kind, it's like my mother and father," says Phannat.

He and the others are giving just as much back to the community.

Memories last forever

Peter Davies is the founder of the exchange program, which also see's Central Coast Grammar students travel to Cambodia.  

Mr Davies, who in the past, has hosted some of the Cambodian students in his home, says the memories they leave behind last forever.

"Some of the funny things that happen, you'll never forget. For example, we told two of our boys that we had a machine for clothes, I wound up pulling clothes out of our dishwasher," he said.

Bec Hockey, a year 12 student at Central Coast Grammar, first met Phannat when she went on exchange to Cambodia last year.

She says it was an honour to see Phannat perform at the assembly.

"[I was] really proud, I knew how nervous he was and he was just amazing and to see his talent be showcased at our school was really amazing," she says. 

For the Cambodia students who come to Australia, the trip is full of new experiences.

In their country, school runs for just three hours a day and there are no extra-curricular activities.

"[We] don't have sport or art or music, that's why it makes us like, feel stressed and this place is very nice," says Phannat. 

Chieb Khtik, also on exchange from Cambodia, say it's her first time using a computer at school.

"It's very fun, she says.

"The school standard, in here, it's very modern. In Cambodia, when we study, we use the notebook but here, we use the computer."

Extra-curricular activities like art, are not offered in Cambodia schools
Extra-curricular activities like art, are not offered in Cambodia schools

The classes are igniting new aspirations for the students.

Vichhay Khorn has been taking part in an IT elective and now hopes to forge a career in that area.

He says he wants to share the skills he's learning here in Australia with his peers back home.

"I want to work in IT. The knowledge about technology are so low so that's why I want to get more from Australia and share with the other children at the centre and in the community," he says. 

That, a real possibility, says Geraldine Cox, if the program's past participants are anything to go by.

"We've got one doing a scholarship in China in IT, another doing agriculture in Israel, we've got to girls doing international relations studies in Phnom Penh universities, she says. 

"We've got another boy doing civil engineering, we've got kids in hospitality, social welfare, the whole lot."

And with Phannat on a path to study at the Royal Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh, the list of success stories looks likely to grow.

If you'd like to learn more or support Sunrise Cambodia, you can visit their website here. 




Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch