Sophy Ron spent eight years of her childhood surrounded by garbage and toxic fumes while living in a notorious Cambodian rubbish dump nicknamed “Smoky Mountain”.
Less than a decade after escaping, the 21-year-old is about to begin studying at the University of Melbourne and dreams of running her own business.
Her former home, the Steng Meanchey landfill in Phnom Penh, has long been a symbol of the country’s poverty.
Each day, thousands of people pick through the filth in the hope of finding edible food and recyclables to sell.
On a good day Ms Ron would earn 50 cents, enough for a few cups of rice to share with her parents and six siblings.
“I didn’t realise it was smelly. I didn’t realise it was dirty,” she said.
“I slept there, I ate there, I did everything there, so it became my home.”
Ms Ron said overwhelming debts left her family with no choice but to live at the dump site.
The local school only offered a place to one child per family, so Ms Ron missed out on a chance to study.
She said she followed her older sister to school and learned what she could by looking through the classroom windows.
From dumpsite to classroom
Her life changed after a chance meeting at the dump with Scott Neeson, the founder of the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF).
“He asked me whether I wanted to study English, and at that time I had no idea what English was,” Ms Ron said.
“I ran home feeling happy because he promised he would take me to school.”
Mr Neeson’s charity, featured by the ABC’s Australian Story in 2012, has provided education, housing and medical treatment to thousands of people in Cambodia since its launch in 2004.
The poverty rate in Cambodia dropped from 53 per cent in 2004 to 13.5 per cent in 2014, according to UNICEF, but children’s living conditions remain poor.
In a 2018 report, the United Nations agency said a third of children under four were stunted and about half aged between five and 14 did not have access to proper toilets.
Ms Ron said she vividly remembered her first day of school, aged 11, when for the first time she saw groups of children laughing and playing.
She was also a quick learner and a good communicator; by 2016 she was on stage presenting a Tedx Talk in English.
‘I hope it changes my life’
Through CCF, Ms Ron was able to secure a scholarship to complete a foundation year of study at the University of Melbourne’s Trinity College.
She graduated in June, paving the way for her to start a Bachelor of Arts degree when the new semester begins this month.
While Ms Ron said she loved life in Melbourne (apart from the cold), she hoped to eventually return home to start a business and continue working with CCF.
Her uplifting story of transformation has been featured in Cambodia’s local media in recent weeks, and Ms Ron said she hoped it encouraged others to donate to charity.
“I can’t really describe the feeling. I hope it changes my life in the future,” she said.
“I have this message throughout my life journey: A not-giving-up message. It doesn’t matter in what circumstances.”