As a child, Sophy lived and worked on a garbage dump and didn’t go to school until the age of 11 after CCF found her. Remarkably, she has gone on to win a scholarship to study in Australia and is now set to start a degree.
When she was 11 years old, Sophy Ron was photographed on the city garbage dump in Phnom Penh, then the largest and most notorious landfill site in Southeast Asia, where she worked from dawn until dusk picking through piles of festering rubbish.
The image was taken during a visit by Scott Neeson, before the Cambodian Children’s Fund had even been set up.
Sophy is in a crocheted red hat standing on the dump, where she also lived sometimes, with a mountain of rotten garbage towering over her from behind.
Wearing a dirty green top – scavenged from the decomposing refuse around her – her small child’s hand, encrusted with dirt, clutched a sack slung over her shoulder to collect the sellable items she’d found in the trash.
Her radiant smile shone out amid the grime around her.
12 years later, Sophy recently stood on a stage at the prestigious Trinity College at the University of Melbourne in Australia and gave the valedictorian speech for her graduating class of 2019 after completing her first year as a university student.
Anyone who heard Sophy Ron’s speech that day could not fail to be moved by her truly extraordinary story. It was the culmination of a journey for Sophy, from the garbage dump of Steung Meanchey in Phnom Penh to the halls of Trinity College, the oldest residential college of the University of Melbourne.
Not everyone in the audience for the graduation ceremony on May 24 knew about Sophy’s story. Even some of her classmates who had spent the last year studying with her, were not aware.
Her story would reduce some of them to tears.
It was that of a little girl who grew up in poverty in Cambodia and could only dream of one day going to school.
“Ten years ago, I was a clueless little girl who helped support her family by picking rubbish on a noxious and filthy garbage dump every day for money. I did that seven days a week, from early morning until dark,” Sophy told the audience.
Home was a tattered makeshift tent or ramshackle shelter on or around the filthy dumpsite, where the family of eight would squeeze into at night. Pictured below is one of these ‘homes’ where Sophy lived, with Scott Neeson standing with her mother and two children from the family.
Breakfast and lunch was discarded, rotting food that Sophy found amid the fly infested dump.
The family had to keep moving – when the owner of the land where they had illegally pitched their makeshift home chased them off or the wind blew their home away.
Sophy only had one pair of clothes, a tattered and dirty outfit scavenged from the rubbish where she stood every day.
I never knew what school was like, never knew what English was and never knew that life could be so beautiful.
The reaction to her words took her by surprise.
“I was nervous about the speech and what the response might be,” says Sophy, who has travelled back to Cambodia to see her family following her graduation.
“But people came up to me afterwards and said ‘You made me cry’.
“A lot of them from my class texted me saying that they had no idea about my life and that I have come so far. They see it as an inspiring story.”
Her story has gone on to touch many people around the world.
A Facebook post by CCF about her graduation reached more than 1.3 million people, generating 43,000 likes. Interview requests are still coming in and Sophy’s story has appeared in the media in Cambodia and Australia.
“I am happy, really happy. I did not know that I was inspiring people,” says Sophy.
Sophy moved to Melbourne last year after being selected as the first CCF student to receive a scholarship to Trinity College, and a place on the Foundation Studies course, which prepares students for a degree program.
Back in 1883, Trinity College became the first university college in Australia to admit women, so it seems fitting that it’s the place where Sophy is now spreading her academic wings and coming into her own as a young woman.
“I feel like I am starting to see the world as a bigger place now,” she says.
“Since being there, I have grown as a person and I think I am more confident. I have become more independent, more daring to try new experiences.”
It was a huge step for the 23-year-old to move 6,880 km away from her family and leave her life behind in Cambodia.
“I love my family, so I miss them a lot,” she admits. “It’s really hard for me sometimes. When they encounter problems and call me, I feel like I want to be there, but I cannot.”
Straddling two countries, two lives and two very different worlds, can be difficult. And the pull of the past can be strong.
Sophy grew up with six siblings – five sisters and two brothers – in poverty. There was never enough money for food, let alone to pay for schooling, and their family’s itinerant lifestyle provided little stability.
“I can’t remember how many times we had to move houses,” recalls Sophy.
“One day we lived there, another day we moved somewhere else. I also lived on the dump once in a tent. When it rained sometimes the water would come in through holes in the tent and I would lie there, soaking wet trying to sleep.”
Like many destitute families, they ended up trying to make a living through scavenging on the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, a sprawling mass of rancid rubbish over 100 acres, once described as “hell on earth.”
Sophy and her siblings had to work on the dump – which closed in 2009 – along with their parents.
“The smell was really bad but living and working there every day, you stopped noticing it,” says Sophy.
“I would eat fruit I found on the dump. At the time, I didn’t feel disgusted. I was happy in a way because I never knew that there was a better life.
“We only used to eat sometimes once a day. Lunch we ate on the garbage dump and if we made enough money that day, we would buy food and eat it at home together. At night, my dad went out and picked garbage at night.”
It was a dangerous environment, where children waded knee-deep through a toxic shifting sludge of garbage, hospital waste and rotting food, underfoot. Putrid smoke filled the air.
Sophy was almost killed a couple of times.
The first time she was saved by another garbage picker who dragged her out of the way of two trucks bearing down on her.
“I was lucky. If she hadn’t thrown me out of the way, I would have been hit,” recalls Sophy.
“Another time, I almost got pulled under the wheels of a truck. I was so scared.”
“I told my parents and they said ‘stop going to pick garbage’ but if I stopped, how would we eat? So I just continued but I became more careful.”
Sophy toiled away from early morning until dark. She made very little money, just 50 cents a day, but it was enough back then to buy four small packs of rice.
The grown-up Sophy has a calm, quietly confident demeanour.
But talking about the past brings emotions to the surface and brings her to tears.
“I was really hard. But when I was living in that situation, I didn’t realise it. It was all I knew,” she says. “It was only after that I thought ‘Oh my God, that was my life’.”
Life changed when Sophy met Scott Neeson on the garbage dump one day.
“He asked me if I wanted to go to school and study English. I had no idea what English was, but I knew that I just wanted to go to school,” she recalls.
Being in a classroom was a revelation and she proved to be a star student, hungry to learn and grasp the opportunity. That determination has taken her all the way to Australia.
Moving abroad to a new country has taken some adjustment, but Sophy is over the culture shock and enjoying being on campus, although she has been too busy with studies to immerse herself too much in the Australian lifestyle.
“When I first moved to Melbourne, everything was completely new for me but I kept learning and as I kept learning, I realised that it was not new, just different.”
She also now has the company of two other CCF students, Seng Hoarng (pictured left) and Sovannry, who were awarded the same Trinity College scholarship and moved to Melbourne earlier this year.
Sophy’s parents – both of whom dropped out of school at Year 7 – are supportive of the direction that her life has taken, even though it’s taken her away from the family and Cambodia.
“My parents are proud of me and they are very happy,” says Sophy, whose siblings also eventually went to school, the girls at CCF.
“I have heard my dad say ‘I don’t have money or inheritance for my children but I encouraged them to go to school and they make me proud’.
“That is all my parents want and that makes me happy. They don’t want money or anything from me, they just want me to have a bright future.”
Life is still tough for her parents. Until recently, her father provided the sole income for the family, earning $120 a month as a tuk tuk driver, and the family have moved out of the city to more affordable housing in a rural location opposite rice fields.
Sophy embodies CCF’s belief that it only takes an opportunity to change a life. Her powerful story is proof that with the right education and support, a child can lift themselves – and hopefully ultimately their family – out of poverty.
“When I first started school, I had no idea what university was, I just studied day-by-day,” says Sophy.
I just knew that I wanted to go to school and learn. When I went into Year 10 and started knowing about university, studying abroad became my dream. This was a chance for me to grab it, so I just did.
Sophy’s achievement has become a big inspiration for other CCF students, who see her as a role model, trailblazing a path for the future.
“I feel really happy to see younger students looking up to me,” says Sophy. “I’m glad because it might encourage them to keep trying and it inspires me too because now that everyone is looking up to me, I have to try harder and I can’t give up.
“They inspire me to do better, every one of them.”
She also hopes that her youngest sister, aged six, will follow in her footsteps.
When asked where she would be today if she had never met Scott Neeson and joined CCF, Sophy is unequivocal in her answer.
“I would not have gone to school. I think I would already be married right now and still picking garbage and not having a life at all.”
“CCF has done so much for me. I would not be where I am today without CCF, they have given me everything,” she adds.
She also credits her long-term sponsor, Paul Tripp, with motivating and encouraging here, and still offering support today.
It’s hard to equate the Sophy today – a smart, immaculately dressed and self-assured young woman – with the dirt-streaked girl in a crochet red hat captured in a photograph by CCF from her days on the dump.
“I have that picture with me [in Australia] and when Scott first sent it to me, I looked at it and I smiled with my tears,” says Sophy.
“I just looked at it and I saw everything that happened: the houses, the moving, what I did and how we lived. I see everything in there, so I got very emotional. But looking at that picture and myself right now, I do feel ‘Oh my gosh, I have come so far’.”
It’s been a long – and at times challenging road – to get where she is today and Sophy is rightly proud of how far she has come.
If she could speak to her younger 11-year-old self, what would Sophy tell her?
“I would tell her that you did great. That even though you don’t know what will come in the future, never be scared to take a risk. I would tell her don’t give up, just do it, even if you fail. That there are a lot of opportunities out there and it’s up to you whether you are willing to go out and explore or not.”
Asked if she was happy back then, the little girl in the red hat, Sophy says: “She was happy in her own world because she didn’t know that what she had was not enough, that it was not a life for her.”
Her past is still as great an incentive for Sophy to succeed as the future.
My family drives me because I just want a better life and I also want my family to live better. So, that’s the motivation to try harder. I feel like I have to do my best and see where I will be in the future. Because I don’t want to be born poor and die poor.