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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006, 08:10 GMT 09:10 UK
Angel of Peckham's gift of giving
By Steve Hawkes
BBC News

(left to right) Thabitha Khumalo, Jane Tomlinson, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Nicky Webb, Helen Marriage
Ms Batmanghelidjh and four others were given awards at the ceremony

Camila Batmanghelidjh has won the UK's Women of the Year 2006 award, which honours those who show bravery, compassion and try to improve the lives of others.

At the awards ceremony, the founder of London-based children's charity Kids Company, who has become known as the "Angel of Peckham" for her work, spoke about her story.

At the tender age of nine, Camila Batmanghelidjh made the decision to dedicate her life to helping children less fortunate than herself.

At the time her own home life and that of the 11,000 troubled boys and girls across the UK who now benefit from her unique blend of psychotherapy, practical assistance and unwavering emotional support could not have been further apart.

Far from being neglected herself, Camila spent much of her formative years being chauffeur driven between her palatial home and her father's luxury resort-hotel by police bodyguards.

My brother and I used to lie on our stomachs down the staircase and see all these people with their amazing crowns and jewels come and go

Born in 1963 in Tehran to a "very wealthy" Iranian entrepreneur and his Belgian wife, Camila grew up in an "unbelievably sheltered environment".

"I had one of the most privileged childhoods," she says.

"My father owned a massive hotel with ice-skating rinks and swimming pools. I never went into a shop.

"Every night there would be these amazing parties at our house and my brother and I used to lie on our stomachs down the staircase and see all these people with their amazing crowns and jewels come and go, and the waiters run around in their black outfits."

It was in the midst of this affluence that Camila first became aware of a "powerful drive" to care for less privileged children, which she describes as a "gift".

"It was very powerful, fully formed and I have ended up living it," she says.

I was left with no money and no status

At the age of 12, Camila was sent to the UK to be privately educated.

But after just two years at Sherborne School for Girls, in Dorset, her own childhood suddenly turned as turbulent as that of many of the troubled teenagers who today turn up on the doorstep of her charity, Kids Company.

With Iran in the grip of an Islamic revolution, her father was arrested and all his assets seized.

Fearing he would be executed, Camila's older sister, who was studying at Manchester University, killed herself.

Camila Batmanghelidjh and children from her charity
I wanted to set up a structure where the children could ask for help directly

Camila has never been able to return home.

All her childhood possessions were burned by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Her "entire personal history was wiped out", she says.

"It was terrifying. My life changed dramatically. And I was left with no money and no status."

Camila's teachers helped her to apply for political asylum and the manager of the British bank where her father had an overseas account agreed to cover her outstanding school fees.

But she had to take a job to cover her living expenses.

Driven by the powerful "gift" she had first become aware of as a nine-year-old girl living in the lap of luxury, she chose to work as a nursery nurse and has worked with children ever since.

She went on to study psychotherapy and was soon counselling children referred to her by local authorities.

But Camila rapidly became frustrated by the number of her clients who failed to attend more than a few therapy sessions.

"I very quickly realised the system was flawed because it assumed there was always a responsible adult to take the children to sessions," she says.

"I wanted to set up a structure where the children could ask for help directly... to develop something that would meet these children's needs where they were."

Determined to realise her vision, Camila, at the age of 25, stopped her mortgage repayments to finance the foundation of her own charity, The Place2Be, which today provides therapy for 20,000 children every year in schools throughout the country.

Taken to court by her building society, she was only saved from having her flat repossessed by a sympathetic judge.

The same two-bedroom 70,000 north London flat has since been re-mortgaged twice to help finance Camila's second charity, Kids Company.

I had to decide whether I was going to deliver this level of emotional commitment to my own children or other children

These days most of Camila's time is taken up by fundraising.

She has raised more than 20m for Kids Company and won the 2006 Woman of the Year award, from The Women Of The Year Lunch And Assembly - a charity which was created in 1955 to celebrate the achievements of women.

She was also named Ernst & Young's Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005.

"I come from a very wealthy entrepreneurial background," she says.

"I was around entrepreneurs all of my childhood and if I was interested in business I would make a lot of money - but I just want to work with the children."

The drive that helped Camila cope with her own turbulent childhood has since benefited thousands of children from much less privileged backgrounds.

But she says it has also cost her the chance to have children of her own.

"I had to decide whether I was going to deliver this level of emotional commitment to my own children or other children - I was very clear I would not be able to do both," she says.

Camila works 12 hours a day, seven days a week at the Kids Company centre in Peckham, London, and has not taken a holiday for 11 years.

It was set up in 1996 and offers emotional, practical and educational support to vulnerable young people whose carers are often unable to provide for them.

"I have not forgotten what it feels like to be child," Camila says.

"I have an intense memory of being a child, so I have a real ability to see the world from the perspective of a child and meet their needs."


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