Angel of Peckham

Another day, and another teen stabbing hits the headlines. But one woman, Camila Batmanghelidjh, is determined to change the public perception of the nation's youth. Kate Magee reports

Photo: Emilie Fjola Sandy
Photo: Emilie Fjola Sandy

There is a wishing tree in Camila Batmanghelidjh’s office. On its branches hang hundreds of cards with handwritten hopes. One simply reads: ‘I wish everyone love.’ If Batmanghelidjh had a motto, this would be it.

With headlines screaming news of the latest teenage murders and the Government responding with anti-knife campaigns, the behaviour of today’s youth is at the top of the political agenda. But Batmanghelidjh says that instead of demonising children and young people, we should be looking for sophisticated solutions.

She believes the ‘feral youths’ increasingly vilified in the media are a product of disturbed upbringings. But she cannot be dismissed as a romantic idealist. Her shrewd and tireless work for Kids Company, the charity she set up nearly 12 years ago, and her former project Place2Be, has won her acclaim in many quarters. The ‘Angel of Peckham’, as she has been known locally for years, has won a string of high profile awards, written a book and received an honorary Open University doctorate.

But her real power is that when she speaks, the media and politicians listen.

It was she that influenced Tory leader David Cameron’s infamous ‘hug a hoodie’ speech after a conversation she had with him on the subject.

‘In a way, we all laugh and think hugging hoodies is a funny image. But it’s also a measure of the sarcasm we have towards vulnerable children,’ says Batmanghelidjh. ‘It suggests that hoodies shouldn’t be hugged. Well, who invented that rule?’

The children that initiate violence on the streets are often very disturbed, she says. ‘They don’t learn gun crime from the street, or violence from video games. They learn it from interpersonal relationships in the family home.’ Children need an adult to treasure them, to teach them that their life is worthwhile, she argues. ‘Otherwise they think, my life isn’t worth anything so by proxy yours isn’t either.’

Batmanghelidjh’s core belief is that this stunted emotional development leads to physical changes in the brain. She is currently pioneering research in the area. And it will be the media that will help her to disseminate the findings.

Her media relations strategy relies on sharing her, admittedly quite complex, ideas with senior journalists in a bid to help them ‘write more sophisticated and accessible articles for the public’. This stems from her belief that journalists think people ‘want a fairytale rather than a sophisticated narrative’.

Batmanghelidjh was born to a wealthy Iranian family, but was a teenager herself when she was thrown into poverty. She was at boarding school in Dorset when the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, imprisoning her father for four years and cutting off her money. She started working in family homes around Kensington and Knightsbridge in school holidays, looking after ‘challenging’ children. By the age of 25, she had a waiting list.

Her first charity was Place2Be and she went on to found Kids Company. The chariity now works with 12,000 of the children on the edge of society. The majority are ‘lone children’ living in chronic deprivation witlittle or no support. But in contrast with the vast numbers of young people who re-offend after a prison sentence, 81 per cent of young people attending the charity’s services reintegrate into education, training or employment.

Last year Batmanghelidjh, 44, threatened to close the charity if she could not secure adequate government funding. The high-risk strategy paid off with the Department for Children, Schools and Families handing over more than £12m. ‘I had proved the charity for ten years but struggled financially. It was time for the Government to take res¬ponsibility for these children that are a product of their own failing structures,’ she says.

Public interest

The media interest in her began when, in the aftermath of the murder of teenager Damilola Taylor in 2000, she dared to represent the narrative of the kids that might commit murder. ‘I stuck my neck out and said there were two sets of kids experiencing this tragedy – Damilola and the children who killed him. People were saying who the hell is she? I got hate mail.’

When asked at the recent Charity Communications conference why the media come to her over other charities that do similar good work, Batmanghelidjh’s ans¬wer was frank. ‘Because I am fat and
colourful,’ she said. ‘And I am prepared to be diminished as an individual, but I will never give up what I need to say.’

Influential Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee agrees. ‘Anyone who is a huge character in the sector causes rivalry. There is edginess about why she gets all the attention,’ says Toynbee. ‘She is the only one journalists remember.

‘She is a brilliant exponent of the cause of the child everyone is scared of. She is a great writer, a great talker and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to politicians. She has terrific descriptive powers of what it is to be a young black kid who is utterly adrift and never had anyone to talk to.’

Batmanghelidjh may think journalists dumb down for the public, but she is generally full of praise for the press. ‘The media have been unbelievably helpful to me and I have nothing but praise for the journalists I have dealt with,’ she says. ‘The press galvanised the public to get us the money to survive last year.’

She shuns many tactics other NGOs use. ‘There is a lot of silly repetition. Everyone wants to do a march. What is a march going to achieve? People say, We’re going to say we’re against knife crime. Who isn’t against knife crime?’

She doesn’t believe government ‘education’ campaigns are the answer either. Her solution is to fix the ‘under-funded and under-functioning’ social care system, end the reliance on jailing youths and make
society take responsibility. ‘As a nation we are getting very rich but a lot of children are still desperate,’ she says. ‘If you continue to meet your own personal needs and leave behind vulnerable people, at some point you will pay for the imbalance.’

Systemic problem

Her message to people is that they are right to be worried, but the problem is systemic. ‘Check whether you are contributing to it,’ she says. ‘If we allow the equivalent of ten years of the children’s mental health budget to be spent in one year on something like the Millennium Dome, as voters, we’ve made a choice.’

Batmanghelidjh now spends the majority of her time fundraising for the charity. She only works with the ten most disturbed children and admits that the job is tough. ‘I’ve been to hell and back with Kids Company and I’m sure I’ll go to hell and back again,’ she says. The colourful headgear she wears to keep a part of herself shielded from the public glare is a small sign of the toll the job must take.

But she describes her work as a vocation, saying she knew from an early age that she would work with vulnerable children. She laughs as she remembers how her family used to tease her. ‘They used to say to me, oh shut up, go and run your orphanage.’ In her own unique and colourful way, that is just what she has done.


words of wisdom


‘Respect is something that is earned. Young people have every right to be on street corners because it is their community too. You can’t put out dispersal orders just because they are young.’

‘I’m not against custody; some children should be removed. But they should be removed for treatment. Not put on a psychiatric ward where the patients have set up a crack cocaine business. Prison programmes have a huge re-offending rate. Tell me, in what other profession does someone accept an 80 per cent failure rate?’

‘When the children of the rich are distressed they end up in rehab. When the children of the poor are distressed, they end up in jail.’

‘When I first started this 11 years ago, I could guarantee the firearm was in the hands of the drug dealer. Now the firearms are in the hands of 14- and 15-year-olds who often have disturbed states of mind with increased access to crack cocaine and skunk. You’ve got potentially very psychotic young people with easy access to firearms and ammunition.’

‘Where do you get anyone talking about emotional leadership? Everyone knows at the end of the day, what really matters is your emotional life.’

 

CV

2008 Awarded an honourary doctorate by the Open University

2006 Named Woman of the Year, and publishes Shattered Lives: Children Who Live with Courage and Dignity

2005 Wins Ernst & Young's Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award

2004 Kids Company evicted from its first dop-in centre in Southwark, south London after complaints from neighbours. Donors help it open a new one

1996 Founds Kids Company

1988 Stops paying her mortgage to finance her own chaity, Place2Be

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