UK Politics

Camila Batmanghelidjh: Profile of the Kids Company boss

Camila Batmanghelidjh Image copyright PA

The founder of Kids Company is well known for her colourful choice of clothes, and her life story appears to be just as colourful.

Camila Batmanghelidjh was born to a wealthy family in Iran. In a Guardian interview last year she said that because she was premature it was thought that she would die, and so was sent home without her birth being registered. She told the paper: "I don't know my birthday. My mother can't remember."

Whatever the precise day of her birth, given that she says she was 14 at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ms Batmanghelidjh is now around 50.

She traces the origins of Kids Company - which she founded in 1996 - back to when she was nine and wanted to open an orphanage. She says she was creative but had dyslexia and struggled at school, spending three years from the age of nine in a special Swiss school.

Arriving in England at the age of 12, she was educated at the the private Sherborne Girls school in Dorset and was there when the Iranian revolution broke out and her father was captured. She says he was presumed dead for three years, before they were eventually reunited. He died in 2006.

But she believes the impact of her father's capture had a profound effect on her family. Ms Batmanghelidjh says talk of her father being murdered tipped her sister Lila into psychosis.

Following school, and despite her dyslexia, according to her profile on the Specialist Speakers website, she used a tape recorder instead of pen and paper and got a first-class degree in theatre and dramatic arts from Warwick University and then trained as a psychotherapist in London

The charity's website says she founded Kids Company in six converted railway arches in London - and that on two occasions she has re-mortgaged her flat to see Kids Company through its lack of funding. It says over the years she has worked tirelessly to raise millions of pounds for its work.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Meeting Prince Charles in 1998

Originally starting up in London the charity deals with some of England's most troubled youngsters who often suffer from abuse, mental health problems, substance misuse and homelessness.

Kids Company says its aim is to restore their trust and provide an environment in which they can begin the healing process, "using a carefully designed support system that includes psychotherapy, counselling, education, arts, sports, hot meals and various other practical interventions".

It now operates in London, Bristol and Liverpool and claims to help 36,000 people.

Well known for her charismatic approach and distinctive dress sense Camila Batmanghelidjh is one of the UK's most instantly recognisable figures - one magazine profile put it like this: "Ignoring Camila Batmanghelidjh is not easy: not her neon clothes and ready roar of laughter; nor her rocklike certainty gained through experience, academic research and compassion."

She has won an array of accolades and awards, including a CBE and a series of honorary degrees and fellowships from universities including UCL and the Open University and was listed among the UK's most powerful women by BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour in 2013.

The charity has had an array of high profile donors and supporters, including children's author JK Rowling and was chaired by the BBC's creative director, Alan Yentob.

And Ms Batmanghelidjh had influential contacts in politics too.

The charity has received millions in government grants going back a number of years. One source involved in talks over grants says David Cameron appeared "mesmerised" by the Kids Company boss.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The high-profile charity has regularly hosted leading politicians

Officials and ministers at the Department for Education had repeatedly expressed opposition to continued funding for the charity because of concerns about its performance and management but, the source said: "She was a good news story for the Conservative Party. It was a case of glamour over substance."

And a former adviser in the last Labour Government has told the BBC he raised concerns about Kids Company as far back as 2007.

He said that there was a "cult of personality" surrounding Camila Batmanghelidjh and that the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown intervened personally to safeguard funding for the charity.

In July Ms Batmanghelidjh announced she was to step down as a condition of her charity getting a £3m government grant.

At the time Ms Batmanghelidjh claimed that government briefing was "attempting to discredit me" and distract focus from the charity's lobbying to improve services for troubled children and youths.

According to Newsnight's Chris Cook, that £3m grant and the associated restructuring have failed to give the charity the finances to secure its future and it plans to close for business on Wednesday evening.

The former Conservative education minister Tim Loughton, who told the BBC his department had been over-ruled by No 10 in 2012 over levels of funding for Kids Company said: "Anybody who has met Camila Batmanghelidjh cannot be but completely impressed by her passion, enthusiasm and charisma.

"But you have to balance charisma, passion and enthusiasm with running a charity effectively and administering a charity effectively and clearly that's where there are some shortfalls."

London mayor Boris Johnson told Today "it's a great shame that it doesn't seem to be working in the way that I think everybody who supports the idea would like - what I want to happen is to ensure that all the kids who've been receiving attention from Camila and her team will have some kind of safety net."

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