03.06.11

Women in the World: Sokha Chen, Cambodia

The city dump in Phnom Penh was the foulest 100 acres in Cambodia. The smell was nauseating, the smoke was choking, and the garbage itself was dangerous. Sokha Chen's legs still bear the scars of countless cuts, stabs, and burns from the four years she spent scavenging for bits of metal and plastic. But today those scars are covered by the bright yellow socks that are part of her uniform at Zaman Academy, one of Cambodia's best private schools. At 16, Sokha is a top student, as well as an accomplished classical dancer. Her life now would have seemed an impossible dream just a few years ago.

Orphaned at age 9, Sokha left her village for Phnom Penh, where one of the few ways a child can earn money is to pick through the dump. That's where Chicagoan Bill Smith found her three years ago. Smith had come to Cambodia a few years earlier to adopt. But instead of just returning home with one child, he wound up founding a center that is home to 100 children from the dump and surrounding slums. Called A New Day Cambodia, it gave Sokha her first real chance to show what she could achieve, not simply what she could endure. She has been moved to successively better schools as she outstrips the other students, demonstrating a remarkable talent for languages. What is most remarkable, though, is her resilience and her optimism. She doesn't mind talking about her painful past, but she prefers to describe the school she will open for poor kids, and the house she wants to buy for her sister. "I have a bright future," she says with a grin. "I want all Cambodian kids to have a bright future too."

Richard E. Robbins, a founding partner at The Documentary Group, is an award-winning producer and director who has been making films for more than a decade. His current project, 10x10, tells the stories of 10 girls coming of age in 10 countries across the globe—including the girl featured in this story, Sokha Chen.