While Camila Batmanghelidjh’s flamboyant fashion – her most noticeable feature – often elicits colourful descriptions, they certainly don’t do her justice. At 18, after graduating with a First in Theatre and Dramatic Arts from Warwick University, she called her friends and said: ‘Look, I’m not going to make a very good friend to you because I have a vocation to follow, so please don’t invite me to things anymore.’ Camila had decided to finally chase the business plan she had sketched as a 9-year-old: starting a charity to help disadvantaged children. Her unrelenting devotion has since seen her climb to a position as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK (BBC Women’s Hour list).
A 12-year-old girl who was raped by her father, then forced into prostitution, and used by up to 20 men a day. Four abandoned siblings who were found sleeping on cardboard in a room littered with dog faeces. These are just a sample of the 36,000 children whose childhoods Kids Company helps restore. With a staff of 600 and 11,000 dedicated volunteers, the charity has achieved a 90% reduction in criminal activity among its kids, with 91% going back to education and 60% finding employment. Batmanghelidjh, who often appears at charity galas to lobby her cause – the kids – has drawn benefactors such as Helen Mirren and Prince Charles to the charity.
We meet at Kids Company’s headquarters, an ex-social security building in Southwark, London. I’m shown into Camila’s office by her secretary. I remain transfixed by the door as my eyes take in a fairytale room: turquoise geometrical windows wrought into arabesques, ornamental furniture, jungle-painted walls garlanded with kids’ drawings. The room has a secret tunnel built into the walls (‘really hyperactive kids get through those trapped walls and run around and scream’), and a tree trunk running through it. The distractions are there for a reason: ‘It’s really important to have trinkets the kids can play with because they feel too ashamed to just look at you straight. The fabric of the room has got so many of their secrets,’ says Camila. This empathy and attention to detail is behind the ethos of Kids Company.
Camilla lights up with mischief as she explains the role of art in the kids’ rehabilitation. Their art has been displayed at the Tate Modern and Royal Academy of Arts. In 2004, the exhibition Shrinking Childhoods saw 28,000 visitors walk through installations created by the Charity’s kids. ‘They converted portacabins into scenes from their lives, and said to me: ‘‘F***ing Hell Camila, I can’t believe you’re going to let the public see this!” – and I was going – “Why not? You’re living it and you should!”’ Camila recounts. She had attached pens to the blank sections of the exhibition, encouraging the public to share their own childhood traumas.
‘It was incredible to exhibit something that you’ve had to keep a secret, or been ashamed of all your life and the sense of relief, to finally be publically discussing these issues.’
Batmanghelidjh, who was awarded a CBE (Commander of British Empire) for her work in February this year, tirelessly fights the system to help abused and neglected kids. The current model of social care is based on dealing with disturbed children through morality, believing the shame and memory of punishment will prevent a repeat offence. Kids Company advocates for a reversal of this system.
‘Children, who have been maltreated, are in a constant state of emergency, you tell them ‘Calm down!’ and they don’t know what you are talking about because they feel like a shaken bottle of coke internally,’ says Camila. The constant tension block the child from sequencing or registering information and their primary challenge isn’t lack of morality, ‘it’s that they can’t calm themselves down’.
She shows me a scanning of a normal three year-old’s brain, and the brain of a three year-old who’s been extremely neglected. The second one is much smaller, but also has black cavities that are literally a lack of brain development. ‘So the more I interact with you positively, showing you love, the more branches your neuronal pathways develop as a child,’ says Camila. And the opposite holds true too: the less interaction, the less development.
Kids Company’s first intervention consists in getting the child in a calm environment, dulling the edge of their state of terror. The 101 of social care is then to provide a bed, clothes, food, and access to schooling (Kids’ Company’s Urban Academy centre provides A-levels teaching). Because the traumatised brain is addicted to over-stimulation and risk, ‘we actually encourage kids to expel tension by doing high intensity activities, so we say: let’s go boxing, climbing, catapulting, whatever it is, but on my times,’ says Camila. Next, the tiered model of rehabilitation teaches the kids actual calm. This is where the soothing salad bar of activities comes in (the therapeutic centre Heart Yard is solely dedicated to massage, flexology, swimming). ‘The best way to think of us is we have a salad bar of all possibilities, from which we select to each individual child.’
The charity’s neurophysiologic recovery programme incorporates art into its final step: developing the reflective ability to understand, grieve, and recover from the trauma. When presented with a piece of paper, the kids usually rip it apart. Through the therapists’ persistent work, they are taught the basics of collage and cutting. A shift happens as the kids become more confident and most of the disclosures of sexual abuse happen in the art room, Camila explains. Symbolism and metaphors come to represent expressions of the suffering and humiliation. When reflection sets in, ‘suddenly you think “Blimey! Where did this come from?” The kids acquire mastery over their trauma, and their art becomes this fusion between personal narrative and public statement.’
Each night, about 1.5 million children in the UK go to sleep after a day of being terrorised or abused, and only 80,000 children are ever in care. The government’s social care policies are short-sighted and the budget is simply not there, says Camila. Her long-term care packages are paramount in saving these kids.
Walking the halls of Kids Company, it strikes me that art as an antidote has never rung more true. The abuse, rape, disappointment, and neglect, is re-worked by young hands that demonstrate talent, ambition and political eloquence in their art pieces.
This year Kids Company’s fashion team has created a fashion label, which has been sold in Selfridges and Liberty. They are currently working on a clothing line with a well-known fashion designer. What’s Camila’s secret behind her success? ‘I think it was my Iranian’ness that made me succeed with these kids. And I’ll tell you what it was: everyone is ‘mehmoon’ [guest, in Farsi]. I was having these six foot four boys, kicking and spitting. And all I could do was say: “Welcome in, have a drink and cake.” I think that’s what did it.’ The Belgian-Iranian come English entrepreneur had to flee Iran when she was 11. Her father was incarcerated and as a result Camila was sent to boarding school in England. Suffering from severe dyslexia she struggled to settle in. The trauma of her father’s sentence caused her sister to commit suicide. Despite this troubled past, it was still the belief in endless possibility and a detachment from the arbitrary that brought Camila to where she is today.
‘This sense of power is not that important. Wealth, is not that important. It’s what you do. I was totally unimpressed. I remember going to some palace as a kid and looking up at this huge chandelier. I thought: that’s miniature! It’s helped me, walking into spaces that others have thought “Oh my God, I can’t go there!” whereas I think, “Why not?”’
If Camila sounds giddy, it’s because she is. I want to know what three words she would chose to describe herself. Creative. Introvert. Justice-seeking. She follows the statement with her intoxicating, trademark laugh. ‘It’s very freeing, I’m thinking you know what, everyone is an absolute nobody. So why not just embody.’