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'The Angel of Peckham', the late Camila Batmanghelidjh

The latest interview of Purposely features the late Camila Batmanghelidjh, child therapist and charity founder, born 1 January 1963; died 1 January 2024.

The interview was recorded and first published in July 2020. 

Obituary - The Angel of Peckham

Instantly recognisable in her colourful turbans and kaftans, Camila Batmanghelidjh became a familiar figure in the 2000s, as she toured TV studios to promote her charity Kids Company. 

Passionate and charismatic, she highlighted the plight of thousands of youngsters in Britain's inner cities, who were being traumatised by poverty, abuse and neglect. She estimated that one in three of those that passed through Kids Company's doors slept on the floor; one in four lived in homes without tables or chairs. Deprived of affection and support, these children, she warned, were at risk of growing up into deeply damaged adults. 

Her solution was to shower them with loving kindness. At her centres in London, Bristol and Liverpool, children found a daytime home where they could get everything from hot meals to therapy, said ⁠The Daily Telegraph⁠. They were given shoes and clean underwear, helped with their homework, and taken to medical appointments. Her aim, she said, was to make unloved children feel worthwhile; and it was a principle that no one was turned away.

A formidable networker, she raised tens of millions for her cause. J.K. Rowling and Coldplay were among her high-profile donors; Ruby Wax made a documentary about her; and David Cameron's "hug a hoodie" speech was inspired by her. She was dubbed the "Angel of Peckham". 

Some questioned whether she enjoyed the limelight a bit too much; but her methods seemed to work, said ⁠The Times⁠. Outside observers estimated that in the first few years of its existence, Kids Company had saved 3,000 children from going to jail or committing violent crimes. But as the charity grew (it had 500 employees at one point, and received £46m in public funding), journalists started to question whether her results were as good as she said, and why her charity was being singled out for taxpayer-funded largesse. 

There were media reports about youngsters being given cash with which to buy designer clothes; and of a young man being sent on a spa break at Champneys. Then, in 2015, the media reported that the charity had mishandled sexual abuse allegations involving its users. In August that year, Kids Company collapsed, and its centres closed.

The court praised her dedication, and said Kids Company would have survived had donors not withdrawn, owing to the allegations In 2022, the Charity Commission came to a different conclusion. It criticised Kids Company's "high-risk business model" and failures of oversight in some spending decisions. 

However, it found that there was no case for regulatory action against any of the key players, and confirmed that there had been no "dishonesty or bad faith".

At 11, she was sent to an English boarding school, Sherborne, then took a degree in dramatic arts , before studying psychology at the Tavistock Clinic in London. 

She spent some time doing social work in south London before starting her charity. After its collapse, she assisted other children's projects, while fighting her legal battles. 

She was unmarried, and had no children of her own. She said that when she got home to her small flat in West Hampstead after 11-hour days at Kids Company, she was quite glad to be child-free.

Batmanghelidjh was unrepentant about her methods: kids who grew up "in ghettos depend on having nice things for their self-esteem", she said. The police found that the sexual abuse claims were unsubstantiated, and in 2021 the High Court cleared her and the other trustees of financial mismanagement. Camila Batmanghelidjh was born, ten weeks premature, into a wealthy Iranian-Belgian family in Tehran in 1963. She weighed 1kg, and was left with an endocrine disorder and neurological problems. 

Obituary provided by The Week


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