Street children given a new life

Street children given a new life

 

Down ... but thanks to Kids Company, not out
 
Down … but thanks to Kids Company, not out
Picture posed by model

 

JULY 18, 2007
 


 
WITH gang culture tightening its terrifying grip on Britain, one woman is leading the fight back.

Camila Batmanghelidjh founded Kids Company in 1996 and helps thousands of vulnerable youngsters overcome abuse, violence and the deadly drugs trade to become model citizens.

Here, two of her young charges tell their shocking stories as we profile the amazing work done by the charity.

Antoine’s story

HARDCORE hoodie Antoine is 19 and has spent most of his life on the streets. He has sold drugs and worked as a male prostitute to survive. When you read what the young Londoner – now studying to be a barrister – has endured, you may understand why:

When I was a baby, my mum had a mental breakdown and started drinking heavily.

Soon she was using crack.

During the night, people looking for my mum would often break into our house.

They would come into my bedroom and beat up family members.

I was sexually abused at the age of four because of this open house environment.

When I was eight my mum had started on heroin and I spent my time living with different family members.

Back home there would always be prostitutes and different men in the house and it wasn’t safe.

When mum had a binge period I wouldn’t have any clothes or food and there was a lot of shame.

A neighbour used to give me chips to eat — that was all I had.

Social services came to see us but did nothing.

I was roaming the streets by the age of 11 and by 14 I had turned my first trick, prostituting. Prostitution for drugs or food is rife among the kids I grew up with and their parents. I would perform oral sex for £20 and full sex for £40.

I got involved in drugs at 16. I knew I was gay by that time and a boyfriend introduced me to it.

Gang wars are all about white powder (cocaine), brown powder(heroin) and rock (crack).

It means money, survival, credibility and a stepping stone to a better life.

If I could make £300-a-day carrying drugs, I would do it.

Children as young as nine and ten are being given drugs to carry across boroughs in London.

And they are being told they will be shot if they don’t do it.

I started with pills, GHB, poppers, glue, weed and cocaine.

I never touched crack because of my mum’s experiences. When I was having sex with people for money, the drugs helped me to blank things out.

My life was filled with guilt, pain and fear — I was very aggressive.

Finally, I knew I had to find a way out. I began going to a day centre in Kings Cross, London, set up for young sex workers, and joined a drama group. I started acting with David Harewood, who starred in Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio.

I was playing myself in a production in June last year and Camila was in the audience.

She came up to me afterwards and said that even if it took all her life she would help me reach my full potential.

Camila and her team have turned my life around.

I began attending therapy sessions and I was introduced to a barrister, who became my mentor.

I’m currently studying law and I have offers to go to college.”

Chelsea’s story

CHELSEA, 17, started selling crack when she was 11 but with the help of tuition from Kids Co is now due to take her GCSEs. She says:

I grew up in Brixton with my mum. My dad was in jail for robbery. When he came out he started smoking crack.

When I was 11 the problems got worse — it was more mental abuse than physical and I became mute for a whole year.

I started getting into what I call a “family” and others call a gang. I would stay with them and we’d go out and make money together.

I sold crack from the age of 11. The first person who gave me something to sell was my dad. He also gave me a gun and told me to hide it.

I know ten-year-olds who are standing on the block right now with a gun and a kilo of crack on their waist.

That’s what it’s coming to. Society is neglecting to see when parents are failing and no one is intervening.

Bad stuff is being written about shootings and hooded thugs but it’s been getting worse for years. It’s not petty crime, it’s serious business.

When I came to Kids Co I could get meals and change in my pocket to buy food — I didn’t have to sell drugs any more. I’m taking my GCSEs now. Kids Company has become my new family.

Dedicated Camila will give her all to save young lives

Saviour ... Antoine with Kids Company founder Camila
Saviour … Antoine with Kids Company founder Camila
Picture: ARTHUR EDWARDS

SHARON HENDRY
Reports from the Kids Co centre in Camberwell, South London

CHILDREN scream and run for cover as the sound o
f gunfire fills the air.

Sirens wail and armed police surround the building. The room I am sitting in is sealed off and I am told to stay where I am or risk a rogue bullet ricocheting into my head.

This is not a dispatch from a Somalian border town or an unstable Iraqi enclave.

Incredibly, this is a residential street in South East London on a Friday afternoon.

A war is breaking out in the capital and this week I found myself on the front line.

Kids Company is the target. But founder Camila Batmanghelidjh says it is not the first time her safe haven has come under siege.

The project provides food, shelter, therapy and education for children, including gang members caught up in the drugs business.

Dealers rely on child couriers to help ply their trade and do not take kindly to attempts by Camila’s team to prise them away.

Today, one has come back to reclaim his young charge.

Iranian-born Camila, 43, likens violent gang members to suicide bombers in that their lives are so bleak they have nothing to fear from death. She says knife and gun bans do not work — new weapons will merely be found.

“Many children of violence have experienced such extreme violence themselves growing up,” she continues. “The children I speak to recall being stripped and beaten, watching their step-father smash their mother’s skull — and many are the children of drug addicts who never experience any decent family life.

“They are attracted to the father-like spell that drug dealers cast over them, offering food, money, firearms, even LOVE, in exchange for drug-running.

“They experience a sense of power and enjoy being perpetrators of violence after spending so long as the victim. If you are ever the victim of a stranger attack by one of these children, the worst thing you can do is beg for survival.

“In your begging they will see the helpless child they once were and hate themselves — in turn they will probably kill you.”

So what is the solution to the terror increasingly engulfing Britain’s streets?

“You can’t punish parents into being good parents,” says Camila. “You have to address the social care structures that don’t step in robustly enough when parents are struggling.

“Social services is currently under-funded and there is a huge discrepancy between children referred and those actually on the at-risk register. We need to tackle this with better-funded mental health support, social services and activities.”

Running Camila’s centre, which cares for some 500 exceptionally vulnerable children 52 weeks a year, costs £3million annually.

Their work, using volunteers and trainees, to deliver support in schools for a further 10,000 less-challenged children costs £1.2million.

Camila says: “We have to raise £4.5million a year, and we received this money from 4,700 donors in 2006.

“But we cannot continue begging for resources and money for such an urgent front-line service which should be delivered by the Government.

“The Treasury part-funded Kids Company for the last three years, allowing us to become a really good service. The grant runs out in March 2008 — we need to know, what next?”

s.hendry@the-sun.co.uk

  • Kids Co relies on charitable donations to continue helping children. If you want to help, contact them at: info@kidsco.org.uk or visit kidsco.org.uk.
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    One thought on “Street children given a new life

    1. I have to say that you guys are amazing for being able to survive in that type of environment and was able to get out of it. I hope you succeed in all your dreams.

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