THE INNER-CITY FAIRY GODMOTHER
For many deprived children, she is a modern-day Mother Teresa. A year on from the London riots, Elizabeth Walters talks to Camila Batmanghelidjh about how she is mending Britain’s broken homes… with love
She has a deep understanding of London's street gangs and is the woman journalists and commentators turned to earlier in the year when the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel reported on the reasons behind last summer's unrest. Her opinion counts – she works with displaced, distressed and terrorised young people at ground level.
And her loyalty lies firmly with them. 'We keep blaming the children, but it's the adults who are at fault,' she said. 'They (the children) want to be legit.' But without hope, opportunity and – critically – protection from parents or guardians, young people living in Britain's poorest areas are at risk. They are easily sucked into gangs, which fill the protection gap with weapons, swagger and threat rather than care.
Batmanghelidjh and her team were not surprised by the riots that rocked cities across Britain a year ago. 'When you imagine a young man, with nothing to do, no prospects, no hope, no voice, trying to live off benefits of £53 a week – you have a problem. There's a total disconnect with the community. The Government and the media colluded to make it look as if the riots were a case of mass greed. No one reported that people were taking food,' she tells me.
The committee noted that 50 per cent of recorded offences in the riots were acquisitive in nature, whether it was designer trainers or dinner from Tesco. But the fact remains that for many of the young people who took part in last year's riots, the threat of punishment held no sway. Some already led terrorised lives and had no fear of police authority.
Camila argues that the best way to care for these children is a combination of 'discipline, structure, predictability and love'. She has devoted her life to this aim and through Kids Company seeks to provide what she calls 'wraparound love' for distressed youngsters.
Kids Company centres are safe (some have bouncers and metal detectors), friendly, and staffed by professionals from every field. They meet fundamental needs – offering a healthy dinner and a family environment. Psychologists, therapists, doctors, artists and musicians (all referred to as 'workers') are on hand in a non-clinical environment – there are no beige waiting rooms and white coats here. Even the walls of the stairwells in the South East London centre I visit are works of art, daubed with designs that pay homage to Rousseau and Gauguin. Here, children can be children again.
Indeed, stepping into Camila's office is like entering the pages of a storybook. There's a giant tree trunk in the middle of the room – it's comfortingly shady but brilliant with colour. Camila sits resplendent on a sofa behind a table overflowing with paraphernalia and a bowl of grapes that she immediately offers.
When people describe her as a colourful character, they mean that literally. Her Iranian heritage is evident in her dress – a twisty turban and swags of fabric in multiple shades and myriad textures. She picks up fabrics from all over the place, lays them on the floor into a collage, and later transforms them into a garment. She's dyslexic and can't sew, but her clothes more than reflect her enthusiasm.
A friend who volunteers for Kids Company calls hesr a ray of sunshine. She is undoubtedly a force and describes herself as being high energy but peaceful.
While pledging never to have children of her own, she is a Mother Teresa-like figure, totally committed to her vocation. She laughs at the idea of a work/life balance. Engaged and engaging, Camila listens intently, looks you in the eye and explains everything with unwavering interest. No wonder troubled souls can open up to her.
When a child tells their story, her first response is, 'I am sorry this has happened to you. You deserve better.' 'Children want a sense of outrage,' she says.
That outrage was the impetus for her book, Shattered Lives: Children Who Live With Courage And Dignity. Each chapter takes the form of a letter devoted to a child's case. All detail horrific abuse and neglect. It makes distressing reading but is the sort of book to inspire action.
What has made Kids Company such a success is its approach. The company has emotional, not administrative, leadership, and workers believe they can make a difference. It fills the gap left by the Social Services. A social worker, who spoke to me but didn't want to be named, said, 'I spend a lot of time battling with parents and managers over resources, apologising for lack of resources, filling out endless paperwork, and recording and worrying about what has not been done. Sometimes I worry for my own health.'
Kids Company has a supportive structure for both children and workers. There's no time limit for a start. Children who self-refer or who are referred by their schools, often come to the centres for years. And there are plenty of success stories, including Oxbridge students who were once child soldiers (they were found sleeping rough in London's Victoria station).
Mentors must commit to at least a year, and some stay for far longer. Key workers are flexible. They will meet children in their homes, in McDonald's, wherever suits them best. If the structure has fallen apart in the home, workers organise dental appointments, attend parents' evenings and take children to the zoo. Kids Company is a fairy godmother, and Camila is their greatest weapon. Asked what inspires her, Camila replies, 'These kids. They are breathtakingly amazing.'
I am certain they would return the compliment.
Donate to Kids Company by calling 0845-644 6838 or visit www.kidsco.org.uk/donate – volunteers are always welcome.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918