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Tuesday, 31 January 2012
'Kids used to run away when the police arrived, now they stand there and shoot'
31 Jan 2012
The nearest thing we have in our city to an angel of the slums is Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of children's charity Kids Company, a 49-year-old Iranian-born woman of brightly coloured cloth to whom London's lost or criminalised children turn when everyone else has failed them. She is chief witness to the capital's underbelly. It is not only gang members who confide in her: Batmanghelidjh also talks to police chiefs, politicians and princes. She sails through society, beholden to no one, and claims to have no other interest than the truth.
So she speaks with a kind of moral authority when she claims that car- jacking is up by 40 per cent in the golden postcodes of London and that gang leaders are scanning estate agent's windows and Google Earth. According to her, a private school in central London now has police guards to protect mothers and their children on the school run. The riots, she says, were merely a warning. Street crime has hardened into a new kind of nihilism, and gangs are recruiting ever more youthful members. The drug trade is prospering, and its leaders are looking to expand. They have their eye on country houses and charming landscapes. They like the look of Gloucestershire.
So says Batmanghelidjh calmly. Even if you disregard the fact that terrified teenagers are being tortured with cigarette lighters or stabbed or shot by gang leaders, it is in the public's interest to address what she describes as a crisis on the streets.
"When you get large numbers of children in urban areas, disturbed and having access to weapons, then you have a serious problem," she says.
"A new police commander said to me: 'There's a new type of kid on the block, Camila. Before, we'd expect the kids to run away when we arrived, now they stand there and shoot you, they don't bother to move, they're lethal.'"
She leans forward: "When you get someone who doesn't care any more what happens to them, that's a different capacity for violence, much more than anything society has imagined, and that's my point. There's nothing society can do to these children that they haven't already had worse happen. They're dealing with issues of life and death, and you're telling them they're going to get a criminal record, they're going to end up in custody. They're laughing."
Batmanghelidjh is sympathetic towards the police, who have to protect the civilian population from brutalised and murderous teenagers, but she believes we need to enter the teenagers' world in order to save others from it.
This is how it goes, she says. You are living with a mother who can't cope, sleeping on a filthy mattress, with an empty food cupboard and one set of clothes - she later shows me representative and horrifying photographs of children's rooms. You then see a kid down the road, smartly dressed, riding a bike and with his money in his pocket.
The message is that he is doing well, and that he has powerful backing.
"Kids recruit each other into gangs," she sighs. She likens the drugs trade - in size - to the oil industry, and suggests that it is run with similar corporate efficiency. At the top of the pyramid is the "sofa surfer", a Mr Big who may be in prison but who can run the racket perfectly easily with mobile phones smuggled past prison guards, hidden in rectums. Next in the hierarchy are the teenage drug runners. They are trained to look out for disengaged or lonely young ones. A 13-year-old gang member told Batmanghelidjh: "They gave me food and they got my back. But they do terrible things." Curiously, the most effective challenger to the drug barons in south London has been Islam, both in its true and perverted form. According to Batmanghelidjh, radicalism has been endemic in Southwark and Lambeth since 2006, but it is now improving.
"I kept Kids Company out of it," she says, a touch haughtily. "I came from a Muslim country, so I was fighting back with the Koran. But to be frank, the legitimate Muslim movement down here has been the best rehab and corrector of perverse behaviour.
"On the one hand, the drug gangs are recruiting the young boys; at the other end, the Muslims are recruiting them. It has got more kids off drugs, but there was a negative version where they were going around attacking girls for not covering up. It is a big issue now in prisons, they're converting to Islam there now."
It is not hard to decode that young boys need father figures and authority, and that is what the drug barons, and the Islamic extremists, provide. Batmanghelidjh makes a stout defence of her "kids".
"What they want is to be legit," she says. "They want to wear suits, they want shoes, they want to shake hands with the Prime Minister."
Despised or feared by the rest of society, you can see why 17,000 excluded young people, 84 per cent of them homeless, find sanctuary at Kids Company. It provides the idealised home life they have never known. It is clean and ordered and offers routine. The children are not swallowed by bureaucracy and passed from department to department - Batmanghelidjh and her 600 staff offer wrap-around care. Her message to each child is the same: "You are worthy of love and what has happened to you is not okay."
"What the children always say is that it is not the physical pain of the abuse that stays with them, it is the indignity. The minute you are kind to someone you are saying they are worth valuing. An apology is so important. And the moment you do that, you see them grow wings. It is exclusion and displacement which makes people alien and full of rage."
The mother figure who is never shocked and always compassionate puts London's social services to shame. It is not merely that Camila is kind; as important is that she is focused and organised. Her office walls are covered in charts, laying down a clear process for dealing with the hundreds of children who turn up at her door. They cannot slip through the net. City firms come to study Kids Company as an example of a well-run outfit with amazingly high morale among its staff.
Batmanghelidjh estimates that there are 40,000 children on the child protection register in the UK. A social worker handles about 24 cases, perhaps seeing four of them a week.
She refers angrily to the case of Baby P. "There was an army of people and look at all the infighting between the adults. The children don't get a look in."
Batmanghelidjh claims that "only a fraction" of child abuse cases come to the attention of the media. She cites a teenage girl who disclosed sexual abuse and was consequently "wired up to the mains and electrocuted". She talks of a young girl in prostitution after being gang-raped by adults known to her.
It is a world sick and dark, yet Camila Batmanghelidjh defiantly draws a story from each damaged child there and murmurs: "I am so sorry. You deserve better."
Almost miraculously, given the violence around her, she has only once been attacked, and that was recently, at Christmas. A teenage boy whom she had been helping assaulted her at the Kids Company Christmas lunch after she physically blocked him from attacking younger children. Immediately, crowds of teenagers formed a cordon round her, and the assailant has since been disowned by local gangs.
"My phone wouldn't stop ringing," smiles Camila. "Peckham and Brixton [gangs] were saying, 'I can't believe this has happened to you, no one is allowed to touch you, we're not having it.'"
So who is this contemporary Dickensian Nancy who comforts the angry and the unwanted? Camila Batmanghelidjh comes from a wealthy family in Iran. As a child she had a driver and was insulated from poverty. He mother was elegant and slightly puzzled by her daughter's love of bright fabrics, assembled in the manner of the mountain women of Iran.
Aged 11, Batmanghelidjh was sent to Sherborne school in Dorset where she was a quirky but popular pupil. When she was 14, the revolution took place in Iran. She was told her father was imprisoned, and awaiting execution. It was the family bank manager who continued to pay the school fees, from his own money.
Her older sister, who was at Manchester University, unable to cope with their father's imprisonment, committed suicide. After five years he was released from jail and came to find his children in England. Batmanghelidjh, who was at Warwick University herself by then, had to break the news of his eldest daughter's suicide.
Before then, in order to pay her own way, Batmanghelidjh took work in a nursery in Connaught Square. Parents trusted her to work with their difficult children. "I used to get booked into some of the richest households in London, who also had some very disturbed children. I saw child abuse in those houses, just as I see it now. Often a mother couldn't bond with a child - she was a lot younger than the wealthy man, who hadn't bargained on a child. The children got genuinely attached to the Filipina nanny, who would then get sacked by a jealous mother and the child would lose the maternal figure.
"I remember one child put the family Francis Bacon picture in the middle of two chairs and jumped on it," she says.
Batmanghelidjh cites two defining experiences. The first was her sister's suicide, the second was her own serious illness and near death from an endocrine disorder. It has taught her to distinguish between what is important and what is not.
She has never sought a personal life or her own children. Kids Company is a vocation. She lives in a small flat in West Hampstead, decorated in exactly the same way as her office. Asked to draw up a will recently, she burst into laughter: "I have nothing." It hardly needs me to suggest that the riches are within.
Volunteers and donations needed: contact Kid's Company at kidsco.org.uk