"I was living a very privileged life in the West,” he recently told VOA Khmer of that decisive moment in 2003. “I was living in Hollywood as a single guy — lots of beautiful women, boats, cars, movie stars — and all of the sudden you’re confronted with the other extreme. And it’s very hard to turn your back once you’ve seen it.”
After 26 years in the film industry, Neeson, the former president of the U.S.-based 20th Century Fox International, says it was the image of sick children atop mountains of trash that changed his life forever. It was a year after his first glimpse of Stung Meanchey that he sold his boat and car and moved to Cambodia, where his organization, Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), has since made a difference in the lives of thousands of the country's most disadvantaged children and their families, by supporting campaigns for education, nutrition and health.
For children such as 10-year-old Mao Liza, Neeson's fund means she no longer helps her grandmother scavenge items from the massive trash heaps, but instead spends her day learning to read and write.
Her older sister, Suong Lida, 15, has also stopped scavenging. Now she helps with housework and takes English and computer classes at CCF.
“I want to learn at CCF because when I am educated I will get a job,” she said. “And of course because the classes are free of charge as well.”
The sisters likely would have stayed out of school had Neeson not visited Stung Meanchey more than a decade ago. Since then, CCF has begun to provide training in English, computer skills, drawing, and painting, while older youth receive vocational training and, in some cases, go on to university.
“You just fall in love with the kids here,” Neeson said. “They are just amazing kids, so much potential, so much hope, and I thought I could do a whole lot more for the world than making movies.”
Neeson, who once oversaw the release of top grossing films such as Titanic and Braveheart, says CCF also provides families with essential support — from medical treatment to subsidized food — to ensure that parents aren't repeatedly confronted with the impossible decision of whether or not to send their children to school or have them help generate income or look after their siblings.
“I can understand that," Neeson said. "It's a choice between: does the child get to go to school, or do we get food on the table that night?”
For Sok Phal, Mao Liza's uncle, CCF has improved life for his entire family. His niece and daughter are able to get some education, and he and his wife now have a tuk-tuk and a sewing machine to help them with an income.
“I have never imagined my niece and daughter would be able to speak English,” he said. “But now they do. Before, they had no chance to go to school because they had to scavenge alongside me, my wife and my mother.”
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.