Camila Batmanghelidjh (BA Theatre studies and Dramatic Arts 1982-85 and honorary graduate) is a psychotherapist and founder and director of Kids Company, a London-based charity that provides support for deprived and disturbed children. She talked to Warwick Connect about her working day.
To meet Camila Batmanghelidjh is an extraordinary experience and remarkably full of laughter, considering the Dickensian conditions of poverty, homelessness, crime and violence in which she finds children each day.
A sexually abused 12 year-old with three younger siblings looking grey and malnourished, sought us out for help rather than stay with their drug-addicted mother’.
This is a depressingly familiar feature of the working life of an exceptional Warwick graduate who dedicates every waking hour to providing practical, emotional and educational support to vulnerable inner-city children and young people. often these are ‘lone children’ living in chronic deprivation, with little or no support from theadults in their family. A marathon 24/7 effort marked by threats to her life, no distinction between weekday and weekend, no holidays, little financial security – and every step against the backdrop of her own chronic dyslexiawhich means she dictates everything, can’t use a computer and can’t drive. But, thanks to her ongoing commitment, each year most of the 12,000 young people seen by Kids Company will reintegrate into education, training or employment and move away from a life of crime.
Her working day – which for Camila is every day – starts immediately on wakingwith telephone calls to ten of the most disturbed children to check how they are. this from the home she has re-mortgaged twice to see Kids Company through its lack of funding, in a location that is kept secret for her safety. A far cry from her own privileged upbringing in a palatial home in iran where, aged nine, she first became aware of her powerful gift for working with children.
A daily appointment for analysis is the next part of her day – a requirement of her postgraduate work in psychotherapy that she has continued. she says, ‘this helps to keep my mind clear as my life can be so bizarre, one minute mixing with wealthy people to raise funds and the next in the terrible conditions of a crack ‘den’. Apart from sleep, this appears to be the only ‘me’ time in her hectic schedule.
Being driven to her office or one of the charity’s centres by car is not a luxury, but a necessity to ensure her safety.
We are working in a very risky environment encountering rival gangs and paedophile rings from which we are rescuing children.’
The organisation is plagued by continuous threats, at risk from kidnap, has been shot at six times in the preceding two months and employs security guards in bullet-proof vests at Kids Company premises. This drive to work also allows more time for telephone calls to check on other children and catch up with staff.
Kids Company reaches out to young people through two street level centres in south London, as well as through schools. When the first centre opened in 1996, 100 adolescent boys would come each day to ransack the place, goading her into giving up. A dramatic character in dress and style, she earned their respect by literally standing her ground, holding their interest (‘past performances at Warwick Arts Centre helped with that!’) and by using courteous language that they had never encountered. The breakthrough came when she started to serve evening meals, free of charge, which was finally seen as a practical statement that someone cared about them.
Today, what makes Kids Company unique is that the children refer themselves to the services, or are referred by their peers. They typically face complex and multiple difficulties and have histories of trauma, instability and emotional disturbance but, Camila says, ‘we never turn a child away, no matter how challenging their behaviour’. The charity aims to restore some consistency to their lives using a variety of approaches such as psychotherapy, counselling, education, arts, sports and practical help, such as those hot meals.
As well as visiting the centres, where she still works as a psychotherapist, Camila may also go to the charity’s head office where most of her time is taken up with fundraising meetings and events. She and her team have raised over £40 million, but the financial future is always uncertain, in spite of a recent government grant of £12.7 million over three years for their work with children aged 14 upwards. Another £4 million is still needed each year for their ongoing work with other children and even with powerful friends such as HRH the Prince of Wales and the artist, Damien Hirst, it is an uphill struggle that requires increasing creativity. The support of business and the general public helped Kids Company to survive but increasingly, Camila is out and about hustling for money on what she calls‘turban duty’ (a reference to the striking turbans she wears that make her impossible to overlook). all this achieved by a woman who can’t read a spreadsheet properly, so memorises the figures and attributes her financial success to ‘the madness of an amateur’.
If her evenings are not committed to fundraising events, Camila will catch up with her staff – over 200 people who are diverse in nationality and ethnicity, speaking 43 languages between them. In addition, almost 3,000 volunteers give their time, ranging from barristers to artists, photographers to nutritionists. She describes them all as ‘extraordinary people with a fantastic level of commitment, never knowing if their jobs are secure, who face daily risk in the environment they work’.
At a time when many of us will have gone to sleep, she will telephone some of the children again to see how they are – often those who have no-one else to say ‘Goodnight’ to them. When she finally goes to bed (‘I love my bed!’), Camila has no problems sleeping, even with the trauma she has often witnessed and the constant financial worries.‘I don’thave regrets and have faith that somehow we will continue to be at the receiving end of miracles to keep Kids Company going.’ A wish certainly endorsed by the thousands of young peoplewho have had their lives transformed by this woman’s determination.
Shattered Lives, written by Camila Batmanghelidjh, is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. For further information on Kids Company, visit www.kidsco.org.uk.