Giving London street kids – even teen gang members – a safe (and colorful) home
Camila Batmanghelidjh founded Kids Company to help children – and now helps troubled teens. who often get little sympathy since the London riots.
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By gaining their trust and listening to them, she learned that many had been victims of abuse and neglect.Skip to next paragraph
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Batmanghelidjh first imagined opening an orphanage at the age of 9, she says. One of four children born to wealthy parents, a Belgian mother and an Iranian doctor father, she led a privileged life – far removed from that of a homeless London child.
Despite struggling early on with dyslexia, she developed a good reputation at school by looking after between 70 and 90 fellow schoolchildren at lunchtime.
Her mother – "a cross between Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor," she says – nurtured her creativity. Her father was the strategist. Her uncles, entrepreneurs who built a ski resort, taught her to think big.
In 1979, Batmanghelidjh was attending private school in England when the Iranian revolution erupted. Her world was turned upside down. Her father was imprisoned – and thought to have been executed. For her sister, the pressure was unbearable. She ended up killing herself. Batmanghelidjh quickly learned "how stress can tip people over into mental illness," she says.
Both her parents survived and later joined the family in England.
After qualifying as a psychotherapist, Batmanghelidjh set up Kids Company in 1996 – not quite the orphanage she had dreamed of – but a "halfway" option.
Today, she finds it difficult to raise money for troubled teens following the riots that swept England last summer.
"People don't like teenagers," she says, noting that while teens aren't as cute as toddlers, they are "just as vulnerable."
It can take up to three years just to earn the trust of a traumatized child, she says. But that's when remarkable transformations can begin. "We've got children studying medicine – they were homeless," she says. "I've got a boy who was sleeping in a dustbin enclosure, was involved in gangs. He's now studying to be a barrister [lawyer]."
Heather Munro, chief executive of London's Probation Trust, which works with former criminals, praises Batmanghelidjh's "refreshing" approach.
"She sees potential in each and every one, where most agencies would see these individuals as problems," Ms. Munro says. "Batmanghelidjh's passion and charisma are spellbinding."
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