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.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters/File
Camila-Batmanghelidjh is a well-known advocate for traumatized children and teens. The daughter of an Iranian immigrant family says she had dreamed of opening an orphanage since age 9. Her first foray into helping street kids instead attracted fearsome teen gang members – who needed her help.

The South London office of Camila Batmanghelidjh is a world of whimsy – where "Alice in Wonderland" meets "Aladdin." Its turquoise-and- orange walls feature windows inspired by Islamic architecture, reminiscent of Ms. Batmanghelidjh's native Iran.

Much of the décor – including colorful tables, mobiles, a "wish tree," and drawings – is the work of children, some of the thousands she's helped. Most arrived homeless. Many have been victims of chronic abuse, neglect, and exclusion from school.

The room is typical of the type of environment Batmanghelidjh (pronounced "bat-man-GHELL-idge") wants to create for these traumatized children. She seeks to fuel their imaginations and let them know that "anything is possible" – while attending to their need to be clothed, fed, housed, educated, and loved.

This is the secret of Kids Company, her effort – along with 600 staff and 11,000 volunteers – to turn around the lives of troubled children.

Batmanghelidjh, a former refugee, is well known in Britain. Her advice is much sought after by politicians and her opinions by the news media. A painting of her hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, alongside those of British kings and queens – and that of actress Dame Helen Mirren, who is a huge fan of Batmanghelidjh. Dame Helen made a donation to Kids Company after she won an Oscar for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen."

"I don't know where I would be without Kids Company," says Ben Woodhouse effusively. He was 8 years old and "a little bit naughty" when he met Batmanghelidjh. "I thought she was this big, wonderful, crazy woman who listened!" He was rude and insubordinate at first, he says. But Batmanghelidjh won his trust during an art class. They chatted while he drew.

"She empowered me and still inspires me," Mr. Woodhouse says. Now 24, he works at Kids Company full time.

At an interview, Batmanghelidjh is dressed in her trademark billowing robes and turban. Curled up on a divan straight out of "1001 Nights," she reflects on the growth of Kids Company, which now includes three street centers serving 17,000 children – including gang members – across London. Ninety-seven percent were reached through word of mouth.

Today, Batmanghelidjh spends much of her time fundraising: Kids Company depends on 1,700 sources for support.

She admits to having felt overwhelmed – but determined – when the first Kids Company street center opened in 1996. She expected to help vulnerable children under 11. Instead, 100 teenage gang members with a reputation for throwing Molotov cocktails arrived at her door.

"I opened the door at 3 p.m. every day in a state of absolute terror. But nevertheless I would welcome them and say 'Please don't spit!' " she now says with a laugh.

By gaining their trust and listening to them, she learned that many had been victims of abuse and neglect.

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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