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Hussain Manawer
Andy Parsons

How a kid from Ilford won the chance to be the first British Muslim in space

Danielle Goldstein

A philanthropic poet from Ilford, Hussain Manawer has devoted his life to helping others. He never expected it would win him a ticket to space…

Two years ago I was visiting a friend in LA to film for my YouTube channel, when I heard about a competition called Rising Star. The prize was a trip to space. I answered the entry questions quite grumpily, so I was surprised when I made the final round. I was asked to deliver a keynote on something I was passionate about, and I chose mental health. Well, to cut a long story short, I won the competition – and now I’m training to go into space!

I think mental health is at the core of most of our problems. It affects me and a lot of people around me, so it made sense to talk about it. Growing up in London and having a mixed cultural identity of being British and Muslim made me ask: where do I fit in society? What’s expected of me in my religion? What’s expected of me in British culture? These questions still affect me today.

I had a friend who sadly killed himself because of the mental issues he was battling, and another who’s currently in a mental health home, so it’s an issue that’s very close to home. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 13 and I find it’s the best way for me to get everything out without sounding condescending. I wanted my speech to hit people right in the heart, and poetry helped me to do that.

Over the last few years I’ve been to more than 400 schools around the world to deliver lessons on cyberbullying and mental health. I don’t expect teachers to educate kids about mental health when they’re looking out for so many things already: we need to take it on ourselves to teach young people that they’re not alone.

In March we’re hoping to set the record for the world’s largest mental health lesson at Hackney Empire. I’m also working with King’s College London on an entertaining, educational programme for young people about dealing with depression and anxiety. It’s a serious topic, but at every school there’s one question I always get: ‘Where did you buy your trainers?’

Mental health hasn’t always been a big issue for me, but I’ve always been passionate about good causes: everything from building a village in Botswana to organising a series of mountain climbs with people who had never experienced life outside the East End. Because of all my charity work, my sister nominated me to be a torchbearer for the Olympics in 2012. I wish my granddad had been alive to see it. My grandparents came to England in the ’60s and, half a century later, their grandson ran with the Olympic torch. It’s overwhelming. And now I’m going into space!

Since I won the competition I’ve been learning how to handle G-force, zero gravity, nosedives and all sorts of space trip situations. It’s been horrible, but I’ve loved it. I went up in a plane with a German pilot and I kept saying, ‘This is sick!’ – so he thought I was going to vomit. When I finally explained to him what I meant, he started spinning the plane upside down and I started shouting again – this time, ‘I’m going to be sick!’ Of course, he thought I was loving it. One day I’d like to turn all of this into a movie. Something like ‘East Is East’ or ‘Bend It Like Beckham’: a boy from Ilford who gets to go to space. I want it to be a cult classic for my generation.

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