Scott Neeson frowns as he reads the message on his computer screen. Another child has been beaten and raped. “Oh, it’s Siem Reap again,” he says grimly, referring to the town in Cambodia’s north, near the wildly popular Angkor Wat temples. He reads on, noting that the child has been airlifted to a hospital in Phnom Penh and an investigation is already underway.
In a country afflicted with widespread child abuse, it’s not a given that this case would ever be investigated, or that the child would even be treated. That it has happened so swiftly in this case shows the situation is slowly changing, due in part to Neeson and the Cambodian Children’s Fund he established.
The Fund’s semi-autonomous Child Protection Unit is staffed by three former Australian police officers and nine seconded Cambodian police officers. Its mission is to uncover sexual predators and exploiters, arrest them and lock them up. Running for a year so far, the unit has arrested, prosecuted and convicted 18 child molesters. “Our CPU has taken on 170 cases and the arrest rate is over 80 per cent as opposed to I guess it was less than 2 per cent, depending on how you extrapolate out the figures,” Neeson explains. The unit trains Cambodian police, too, in forensics, crime scene evidence logging, and child interviewing techniques. “The most important thing is increasing the rate of arrests for people who rape children.”
In late July there was news in the Cambodian press that the Cambodian director of a charity school in Siem Reap, the “Underprivileged Children School”, had allowed foreign volunteers to sexually abuse teenage students at the school. The director was arrested and charged with the crime of procuring children for prostitution. “That was five months of undercover work by our CPU team,” Neeson says with a grin.
This investigative work must be done, but he knows that these kinds of revelations can be counter-productive for his own charity. Cambodia has had a run of scandals about orphanages and charities, and donors’ faith must be wearing thin. “I know, I know,” he says wryly. “We’re the ones busting these charities wide open, so it is cutting off our nose to spite our face. It is a catch 22. But the real successes, people don’t read about. There was a horrible case – a serial rapist in Battambang. He’d savagely beaten a five year old and then raped her. He was on the run, and then on Sunday he did the same to a six-year-old and she’s in critical condition. But we had our own trained police force there and they got the guy. They wrote a terrific evidentiary report, and the guy will not get out of this.”
Once the president of 20th Century Fox International, Neeson left the sparkling lights of Hollywood more than ten years ago to establish the Cambodian Children’s Fund and devote his energies to improving the lives of some of Cambodia’s poorest and most abused children. And it’s all ticking over: kids are going to the schools he has helped set up in the capital of Phnom Penh, and sometimes living in the fund’s residences. Poor families have been given houses by the fund, the elderly have been supported, the debt-ridden have been lent a financial hand. The CPU is clamping down on the bad guys.
Scott Neeson is a much-loved figure in the dreary, scabby alleys on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Kids run up to him and hug his legs, and sadly, in the new way we think, that might become a problem. As a single, white, middle-aged man working with hordes of touchy-feely kids in a third-world nation, Neeson knows he lives with automatic suspicion.
There has never been a sniff of scandal or rumour about him but Cambodia has a shocking record of westerners preying on children, both sexually and for financial rewards. “The issue I have of course, it feels as if (people think) every western male, certainly over the age of 40, all it takes is opportunity,” Neeson says grimly. “(People think) it’s not like there’s a choice, or there’s a conscious decision. It’s just a matter of opportunity. It’s untrue. But it’s a perception that worries me.” Sitting in his spartan office adjacent to slums in Phnom Penh, he shrugs. “They don’t say it to me. Do they look at me sideways? I honestly don’t know.”
Now 55, the wiry Australian with sandy hair and face-splitting grin has made his charity empire function well and smoothly, and pumped some hope and enthusiasm into the some of the poorest families in Cambodia.
“Every night I go out to the communities,” he says of his regular ramble through the filthy rat-runs, past the dingy shacks and tenements of these slums. “It’s really dire out there, but it’s improved enormously.”
The rank poverty of Cambodia’s poorest places first grabbed his attention in 2003. A then-wealthy film executive, he was passing through Phnom Penh on his way to see the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in the north of Cambodia. The sight of the street beggars in the city appalled him, and someone suggested he visit the city dump where the poor clustered to scrabble a living.
Cut to the core by the the sight of thousands of Cambodian children living on the huge and foul-smelling dump in Steung Meanchey, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Neeson took a giant step and turned his life around in order to help them. The dump was their brutal existence – they and their parents earned a living on the 40 hectare garbage heap sometimes known as “Smoky Mountain”, sorting trash and selling scraps of metal, paper and plastic to traders.
In a nation still torn by the madness of the Khmer Rouge years, the dump children were malnourished and often ill, their parents illiterate and struggling with unremitting hardship; constant, filthy labour. “That garbage dump is closed now, but people here are still earning a living scavenging,” Neeson says. “They push their carts into the city and scavenge there; two and half hours to walk in; two and a half hours back.”
Born in Scotland, Neeson grew up in working-class Elizabeth in Adelaide and spent ten years in Sydney before moving to Los Angeles. A high-school dropout, he began work in the movie business, originally as a projectionist, and his confidence and intelligence drove him on from there. After 26 years in films, working on blockbusters like Braveheart, Titanic, and Star Wars, he was ripe for a life change.
Within a year of that first visit, Neeson decided to move to Cambodia and help the kids. The Porsche and the yacht were left behind in the US. The seven-figure salary and star-lit life became a nostalgic memory. “The year before I left I was nominated by LA magazine as one of the most eligible bachelors in LA,” he laughs. “So sad. Nowadays, I can’t even get a date.”
His single life is partly dictated by perception. Concerned about age and wealth disparities, he doesn’t want to be seen with a young Cambodian woman on his arm, and the older ones are mostly already married. Single western women rarely live in Cambodia for more than two years at a stretch. Still, Neeson doesn’t seem to regret the lack of intimate companionship, saying quietly: “If I’d married in LA, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be living in an apartment, trying to pay off the alimony”.
After all the hard work, Neeson can look back at the progress of his benevolence with some satisfaction. Starting from nothing, the Cambodian Children’s Fund now runs on a US $8 million annual budget ($8.5 million), educates 2,000 children, provides healthcare for as many as 3,000 slum children and parents, operates soup kitchens, and provides small, modern, stilted houses to the homeless.
Vocational training is underway at the Star Bakery and Star restaurant, and the Fund helps cover loans to reduce crippling interest rates to manageable levels. It provides elderly women with a stipend and rice in return for advice to teenagers on how families were managed and structured before the nation was turned inside-out by Pol Pot and his mad Khmer Rouge henchmen.
The classrooms at a Fund school are alive with anticipation. “Bah (Dad) Scott” is coming to visit. Cambodian children are learning English and maths and computers in the classrooms here, chanting along to a song (in English) about washing and teeth brushing, practising their English, and using computer programs to improve their maths skills. They look bright and healthy and willing to work as hard as they need to.
Some have been traumatised and Neeson delivers a running commentary on their short and terrible lives. She was raped, he says pointing to a girl, maybe eight years old. Two sisters were abandoned. Another child’s mother is mentally unwell. Another one’s mother tried to sell her.
In each of the classrooms, Neeson stands at the front of the room and hands out the academic awards; fourth, third, second, first, most improved. The praise is lavish. Photos are taken. And each child is given an envelope with a little cash and a token for a rice hand-out. The first prize-winners get framed certificates. With giant grins, the winners walk back to their seats with Neeson’s words of encouragement ringing in their ears. “I’m so proud of you,” he says to these children. “You’ve done so well.”
Neeson is proud of them. “I firmly believe we have the best education system in the country,” he says with a grin. “We work in with public schools, so the child is spending a half day in public school, a half day in our schools which are teaching math, English and computers. Every child in our education program has a promise of getting into university. So far, 37 have passed grade 12 and 37 have gone on to university.”
A big believer in responsibility for his protégées, Neeson assigns squads of kids, aged 13 to 16, to run community projects. They get on bikes and take rice to the elderly, grandmothers whose families were torn apart in the Khmer Rouge years. The youngsters run soup kitchens for 600 hungry kids. They line up the little kids and feed them chocolate-drink vitamin supplements (making them wash and dry their hands in the process).
Geraldine Cox, another Australian from Adelaide, says Neeson is a close friend of hers, and she admires his energy and tenacity. Cox founded the Sunshine Children’s Villages in Cambodia in 1993; an organisation where distressed Cambodian children are educated, given medical treatment and a home if necessary – much like Neeson’s Cambodian Children’s Fund.
“What’s unusual about him, he is obsessed with what he does,” she says. “He doesn’t have expensive tastes. He doesn’t go out much. He doesn’t have a partner. All his time and energy and money is absolutely dissolved into what he does. He’s totally, totally absorbed and doesn’t have any other life, except his project. He is one of the most honourable, hardworking, selfless, committed men I’ve ever met.”
This commitment and drive takes a toll, physically and emotionally. Neeson has had pneumonia twice, dengue fever, and a nasty ear ailment called labyrinthitis. He’s lost a lot of weight, perhaps too much. Talking to a mental health professional in Perth about one of the kids, Neeson speculated idly about the symptoms of burn-out. It turned out he has them all. So he’s changed his life a little. These days he goes to the gym three times a week and he tries to unload a little buttoned-up emotion on professionals with some understanding of the field. With no life partner, he needs to talk to outsiders about his day-to-day struggle.
“I’m working on having someone to debrief, because it’s beginning to get to me,” he says. “Most of my best friends are women, and they don’t want to hear the stuff I’ve got to tell (about beaten and raped children, parents with chronic diseases, the difficulties of going cap-in-hand to ask for yet more money).” The house I grew up in, you didn’t talk about your problems, you learned to internalise. But I met a couple of people in Perth who are professionals who I can talk to on a weekly basis.”
Kevin Tutt left his job as principal of the private Prince Alfred College in Adelaide to move to Phnom Penh and immerse himself in these kinds of problems. A few months ago, he became head of teaching and learning at the Cambodian Children’s Fund, accepting a steep pay cut. Divorced with three adult children, and a friend of Geraldine Cox’s, he too, admires Neeson’s determination.. “Scott struck me as an incredible visionary, a deeply compassionate man with an enormous commitment to the kids of Steung Meanchey,” he says.
Like Cox’s Sunrise Children’s Villages, the Fund also provides resident care for those who need it. This has become rather a sore point. Cambodia’s “orphanage tourism” is notorious, and a UNICEF survey in 2011 found most of the 12,000 children then living in Cambodia’s orphanages were, in fact, not orphans. Three in four had one living parent, yet the number of so-called orphanages was rapidly expanding.
Neeson explains that about 600 children spend at least some of their time living at Children’s Fund homes, and they’re not necessarily orphans. Of those 600, Neeson says, nearly 400 go home twice a week, others who live further away go home twice a month, and a small number only three or four times a year (a few, like two young girls I met at the Children’s Fund, only get home once a year). And he tries to make sure the kids can ring their families whenever they want to.
Other, shady, “orphanages” seem to exist to rook money from naïve tourists. “I’ve come across a number of scam organisations,” Neeson says. “Usually we get the stories from people who have volunteered in these organisations. Generally volunteers will come to us if they know there’s fraud, or child abuse, or child exploitation.” He adds there’s a lot of financial deception, and even the smallest charity should have books open to public view.
Some of the fraud is on a tiny scale. One woman, the mother of three of the children cared for by the Fund, had a fourth baby, he remembers, and she was torn between giving the infant up for adoption – she’d get US $200 cash for the child, or keeping it. She kept it, and now, Neeson says, she rents out the infant for 25 cents an hour, so small beggar children can walk up and down tourist streets with a thin-looking baby, asking rich westerners for money.
Neeson might have been shocked by the beggars he first saw in Phnom Penh in 2003, but he later found out that some, at least, were connected to scams.
It all comes down to poverty. Cambodia is achingly poor. The kind of poor that slides people into crime or corruption.
The Cambodian Children’s Fund sometimes steps in to help reduce a family’s debt to a manageable level. “The kids want to study,” Neeson says. “They’d do anything to study. But the parents can’t afford for them to study. They carry debts. They have to have the children working, or looking after siblings, or they have to be near the house for security.”
So Neeson’s life is now edging along the lip of burn-out, working harder, faster, keeping the plates spinning on the top of the long sticks. The saga of Hollywood is far behind, although there is an occasional visit to keep him in the loop. Actors Meg Ryan, Serinda Swan and Heather Graham have visited Steung Meanchey, and Elodie Yung (who is part-Cambodian) is scheduled to drop in to visit Neeson in his hometown. His hometown?
“I haven’t lived in Australia since 1993,” with a grin wider than ever. “Home is Phnom Penh.”
Anyway, with time for just one holiday in ten years, he’s been too busy for romance.
Keeping an eye on all the branches of the growing tree of the Children’s Fund, Neeson also makes time for his wanderings through the back-lots of Steung Meanchey, the location of the now-closed dump where it all started, and still a frighteningly deprived part of Phnom Penh.