The Conversation: Camila Batmanghelidjh, children's campaigner

 

First things first – where do you get those outfits?

It's all leftover fabrics from a whole lot of things – sofas, furnishings, leggings, socks I put holes through. I design everything myself and someone sews for me.

Before we talk about the children you care for, what are the defining memories of your childhood in Iran?

We had two police bodyguards that drove us everywhere. I thought that was the condition of childhood – I didn't realise we were rich. My father was a self-made millionaire, and his father before him. It was very, very sheltered. When I was nine, I told my mother I wanted to open an orphanage. She took one look at me and thought: 'My God, what have I got here?'.

When did you come to the UK?

At 12. I went to Sherborne School in Dorset. It was a shock because it was a very structured education and I had to wear a uniform. I was always in detention for painting my shoes. When I was 14 the revolution happened in Iran. My father ended up in Evin Prison. We were told repeatedly that he had been executed. He escaped… and we were reunited in the canteen of Warwick University. [While he was in prison] my sister had committed suicide and I had to tell him.

Was all that upheaval and tragedy the making of your character?

Honestly, I think I'm one of those vocational personalities. I don't know if you believe… some people are just born a certain way.

Are you religious?

I am spiritual but I'm not religious. Things run in patterns. If you dissect a leaf it's got a structured pattern. I think psychological life is in the same vein and you have to tune into it to work out people's patterns and work with them to their strengths.

How do you rate this government's record on looking after the country's children?

I think it's incredibly poor. But governments come into power, and they get hijacked by other agendas. International agendas, Europe, everything that preoccupies the voter. Children being harmed behind closed doors aren't going to vote for any government, so they never get prioritised for help.

Do you think the Prime Minister and the Cabinet lose sleep over vulnerable children?

No. I think Iain Duncan Smith is genuine. But I think the others are preoccupied with what they see as bigger threats. I would argue that we are sitting on top of an emotional time bomb in relation to the perversions that are developing in large numbers of children. You run a big risk if you don't think about that end of town. The riots were absolutely no surprise… We warned people this would happen because our kids kept saying: "Camila this government hates us".

You allow yourself very little free time, even eating your meals at Kids Company. What do you do to relax?

Who wants free time? I love quiet and I will swim six hours in one go. But I've ended up living my dream. Why would I want to do something different?

With all the suffering that you see, how do you stay cheerful?

These children are extraordinary in their courage. Sometimes they reduce me to tears. The way they make use of the little bit of help you give them and you think, my God, the human spirit! It's so beautiful.

Biography

Camila Batmanghelidjh is the founder and director of the children's charities, Kids Company and Place2Be. She was born in Iran and moved to the UK aged 12. Her new book, Mind the Child, is out now

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