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The First British Muslim In Space Says He Keeps Getting Stopped At Airports

Hussain Manawer, who's training to go into space, talks to BuzzFeed News about mental health, racial profiling and Chicken Cottage.

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Hussain Manawer, 26, from Ilford in Essex, will orbit the Earth after he beat thousands of competitors for a seat on the XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx commercial spacecraft, which blasts into space next year. Young people from 90 countries applied for the opportunity of a lifetime, launched by talent firm Kruger Cowne's Rising Star programme by Kruger Crowne and One Young World, a platform for 18- to 30-year-olds.

He is an activist, does humanitarian work, has a YouTube channel, Hussain's House, and his winning three-minute pitch was a spoken-word poem on mental health delivered in front of judges Sir Bob Geldof and Fatima Bhutto and an international audience of 1,300 delegates and online spectators.

How did you end up wanting to go to space?

I was in LA and saw a tweet about going to space with Kruger Cowne Rising Star and then filled in the application form and eagerly awaited a response.

Why did you want to go?

For mental health awareness. I think all of us in our life are going to encounter something bigger than us. And I think we can learn – especially ethnic minorities and working-class communities – how to support one another. If we can help support each other we'll be in a better position than [we] actually are.

I remember going to [my] aunty's house one time and people were like, "Don't talk to her," as she's depressed, and I'm like, "Yo, it's not contagious y'know. You're not going to catch it."

I have family members that suffer from it, I have very close friends who go through things, friends who go through things, and I wonder why it needs to be hidden?

What will going to space achieve?

I think it'll achieve a lot of good healthy conversation for a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds.

What happened next?

It was 2015 and I got to the final at the One Young World Summit, in Thailand, where we got called to deliver our keynote speeches. I went out there and was up against two people – one was a humanitarian from Ireland who had been homeless but now generating a lot of money for charities, and the other guy was an Ebola doctor from Nigeria. When I got there both speakers had been at that summit prior to this competition. For me it was my first time.

One girl came up to me and said: "Good luck, but you ain't gonna win because they are really good speakers."

It's like when you're watching X Factor – [you] don't understand how many emotions go into your performance. One of my friends, Amina, said: "If you don't get [it], watch what I'm going to do." I thought, yeah good. I needed to hear my friends say fix up, don't get scared you've come all this way, and not mollycoddle me.

I just did it. And then from the reaction of the audience – who interrupted me four times as they were clapping – at that moment I knew I had won, and in my head I was thinking, If I don't win it's fixed.

There were six votes from judges including Bob Geldof, Fatima Bhutto, and a NASA astronaut, there was a public vote on Twitter who had to retweet my tweet and it was in the thousands, I didn't even realise. It was going mad. I didn't want to get ahead of myself.

How did you react when you realised you were going to space?

At the final ceremony they announced me as the winner. The first thing I did was give my acceptance speech and said: "My name is Hussain and I'm not a terrorist", that was important for me to say. Then I got off the stage and called my mum. And she was like, "Oh my god." She was really happy. Then I called my best friend who throughout my life I have put a lot of emotional burden on. I put a lot of emotional burden on a lot of my close friends. They were really happy.

Why did you say "My name is Hussain and I am not a terrorist"?

Because people think Muslims are terrorists, and being able to travel, I have faced so many racial profiling encounters. [His line was a nod to a famous line in the hit 2010 Bollywood film My Name Is Khan.]

I went to Chicago and got held at the airport for six hours and I came off the plane and the guy was like, "You have to wait here". He took me to immigration and kept me for six hours. For no reason. They said I matched the description of somebody who'd committed a crime at the airport earlier that day.

So I put up a post on Instagram. I don't like talking about my religion, I don't like having to say things. But the way the world is, I feel like I have to because people genuinely think that I go to bomb-making classes, or that my sister is oppressed because she wears a scarf. People don't see what the reality of my life is. And I want them to see that.

On Friday the US embassy tweeted me and they said, "Can you come and meet us?" So I said, "Slide into my DMs." Today I'm going to have a meeting with them.

How many times have you been stopped?

In America, Chicago, that was about a month ago. LA, New York, Macedonia, Heathrow Terminal 5 about six times – but they don't stop me any more. They all know me. [laughs]

I made such a scene last time. A full-on scene. They said 'you match the description of someone who committed a crime earlier today', and I'm like, "Cool, if I did commit a crime why would I still be here?" It was on the way back from Calais.

What happened?

I was with my best friend Ahmed and this was just rude. We went on a refugee trip to volunteer. We did so much good work, we came back, at T5 Heathrow and this guy stops me, but he started getting rude, and dropped me into a room. I asked him several times "Can I call my agent? Can I call a lawyer?" because he was proper rude. Ahmed was like, "Calm down." I asked, "Is that CCTV camera working? Because I want you to use this interview for training and quality purposes when you're training your staff in the future not to racially profile somebody."

There was a Qur'an in the room. I said, "OK, why is there a Qur'an in the room?" He said, "Because we cater to all beliefs." I said, "Cool, so if I was Christian, where's my Bible? I might be Sikh – where's my Guru Granth Sahib?" I was like, where is everything else? Cater to me then.

How does it make you feel?

It's upsetting. It's very, very upsetting. I understand you have a job. I get that. But I think it's upsetting because in that moment it happens, everyone else who's judging you, everything you've achieved, everything you stand for, is no longer valid in the eyes of a lot of people. It's, "You must have done something." And they just ridicule. And that's upsetting.

I can deal with it. But my little sister works in a hospital in Romford and she gets racial abuse and people call her a terrorist. And I'm like, she's a nurse. How can she be a terrorist? Are you that stupid you believe this? So the only way to tell them is to tell them.

You know I got stopped in Bond Street, being accused of being a burglar. I took a photo. I was standing there with a woman I was working with, the managing director of the agency that looks after my stuff, and then this policewoman comes along and says, "There's been a burglary in the area, you match the description – we need to stop and search you."

I don't understand. I think I'm jinxed.

How much of an impact does this have?

My friend who is my agent said, "You're imagining it, like you provoke it, I'm sure you get rude, or whatever." And I said to him, "Next time we go somewhere, watch."

And then we went to Rome, and when we came back from Rome and we get to Heathrow Terminal 5 and come off the plane, and security comes after me and says "can you come with us please".

He was just standing there. I said, "Steven what you saying? Do me a favour and go and cancel the Uber, 'cos they're not going to let me out of here for a couple of hours." Steven said: "I can't believe it, this is absurd."

I said, "This happens all the time. I can't help it."

But it just makes me think, I'm used to it now – imagine what it would be like for the boys in my area who aren't used to it, or other Asian boys who are ... going on a lads' holiday. They'll react in a way the authorities want them to react.

I've seen it. When you go to America or somewhere, they will go in on you. And in the immigration room ... they will keep you here for ages. I just sat there and put music on, they took my headphones, they said "just sit there". Literally just sat there for ages.

When did you begin raising mental health awareness?

When I was in university – I went to uni to keep my family happy – all of my friends lived out during uni. I didn't, I lived at home. I hated it. Everyone was like, "At uni you have the best time of your life." I hated it. I hated my course. I hated everything, so I started experiencing a mild case of depression, but then it really hit me when I started going out. Everyone was drinking, and I don't drink and I was just like, OK, now I feel like an outcast.

Look, one group of society is looking at me and thinking, Oh my god he's Muslim but he's going to the pub, astaghfirullah [seek forgiveness from God]. And then the other side of society is looking at me and thinking, Oh my God, you're oppressed, you're not allowed do to this. And I'm like, yo, I'm actually comfortable where I am. I can mingle, I can socialise, but why do I feel like I'm upsetting somebody constantly all the time? And that started to play on my head a lot more.

One of my friends, really close friends, when he went to prison, started writing letters to me, that started affecting me a lot more.

Then slowly I started seeing things a lot more. I realised everyone is going through something somewhere, but hiding it. And then it made me think, I'm going to talk about it.

When I first put up something about mental health the amount of young Asian boys or Asian girls that started messaging me. I was like, wow, so many of you are going through something that nobody knows about, how are we meant to get through it?

If we can deal with that, it's such a minor hurdle, if we can over it we can get on with life and deal with other situations, like climate change and caring about the rainforest, as opposed to thinking, He's depressed, let's not talk to him, and closing it off.

Talking is the the biggest therapy and being able to talk to someone and let them understand and connect with you is so important.

Why do you think men are less likely to seek mental health help than women?

One of my close friends was diagnosed with depression but his family still don't know because he's hiding it, as he's not allowed to be seen as weak.

And I'm like, bruv, that's not weak, that's just normal. If you're going through something it's normal – for men it's a lot harder.

In today's society, in modern society for the modern man it's not as hard to speak up about it you see it a lot more now, but I think for the traditional communities where I'm from, you can't talk about it. It's sad.

Is it changing?

I like to think it is, but in certain areas it's not.

When you were younger did you ever think you'd be going to space?

No, I never dreamed of going to space. I just wanted to be taken more seriously in the work I was doing. I was in a well-known chicken restaurant and the person says, "Are you here to do the catering?" I was like, "I'm not here for the catering, I'm here for a meeting." And they were like, "A meeting about the outdoor catering?" And I was like, "Have I got this face everyone wants to attack me?"

Once I was in Oxford Street and this woman asked me if I was DJ Khalid. She was like, "OMG: Another one, another one."


What are you looking forward to most in space?

Being able to see the world for what it is. Floating. No gravity. I think just being able to take off and experience the world in a way I never thought I'd be able to experience is really interesting, and just to look around and see what's out there. That's really interesting to me. I'm quite a basic person in life and I think this experience is going to be mind-blowing for me.

I really want to open a packet of Maltesers and watch them float, and do this [munches imaginary floating Maltesers] – I think that'll be really funny.

How have you been training?

I started the training exercise in the Netherlands at Breda airport. I had a German pilot called Hank and he was teaching me the difficulties of weight, so I experienced weightlessness and the opposite of that is G-force aerobatic flight training. My next set of training exercises are in August where I believe it's happening in Russia or the Himalayas, so that's very exciting, and that's more for the take-off.

I thought the hardest part was getting there, but really now the work begins. So I'm trying to process it.

What are your fears?

A lot of people pass out and that's what I was scared of. Because in the training video if you black out, you basically miss the whole thing. You could black out for 10 minutes, you could black out for five hours – you never know. So they were like, "If you feel like you're blacking out tense your hands, tense your feet, tense your bumcheeks," like, "Keep tense so the blood keeps circulating around your body."

But when I was feeling light-headed I wasn't doing that. You forget, 'cos I'm not used to it so now I'm mentally preparing myself as if I'm going into a boxing match. I'm like, cool – if I feel like that, tense up and fight through it because it hurts, it proper hurts.

They were saying it's what you feel like when you get drunk, but because I don't drink I don't know what that feels like. You get really dizzy, light-headed, and everything is like spinning... but it's fun. It is fun. When I think about it afterwards I'm like, I was just in the sky playing around. How many people can do that? [laughs]

What are you doing for mental preparation?

I'm going to the gym more, I play football more, and I went trampolining a lot until I dislocated my shoulder.

How long are you going?

One day.

When are you going?

Next year.

Where are you going in space?

To orbit the Earth, float around, take some pictures.

What will you be wearing?

I don't know, no one has ever asked me that before. I've got a blue spacesuit I train in, it's got lots of badges on it. It looks good, it makes me feel proud wearing it. When I started training it hit me. This is actually real.

Does your faith play any part going to space?

Yeah I'm going to pray when go up there, 100%. I don't know what the direction of prayer will be. I'll ask a knowledgable person. I'll ask Dawah Man. [he's joking]

Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin?

Neil Armstrong. I don't know why – I like his name better.

Chicken Cottage or Morley's?

Chicken Cottage. I ain't from south London, I don't like Morley's.

Favourite spaceship?

The one from Space Jam. That was a sick film with Michael Jordan. They had a spaceship and turned up at basketball games.

Who are you going to space with?

An astronaut. But there are rumours online, and I read in an article I'm going with Brad Pitt and that's all a lie. I saw that and thought, Am I? The media is a mess, you know. Where do you lot get this information from? Someone said I was friends with Leonardo DiCaprio, and I was like, bro, I really ain't. But if I am, tell him to call me, yeah. Because he ain't called me in ages. Trust me, you hear the dumbest things.

Apollo 13 or Interstellar?

Interstellar. I couldn't sleep after it though. Scared out of my life. There's one moment where one hour in space is equivalent to 70 years on Earth. So this guy goes to space and FaceTimes his kid or something and she's become a grandma. That scared me. Imagine if I drift off somewhere accidentally, and then come back and everyone is bare old. I'll be well upset. That gave me anxiety, I'm telling you.

What will you miss when you're away from Earth?

My nephew. Probably a lot, because I could die. That's the harsh reality of it. A lot could happen. My friends, my family, Jaffa cakes, some samosas. I'm going to have all of this before I go. But listen yeah, I'm not trying to die.

What do your friends think about you going to space?

We don't talk about it, you know. We don't talk about it at all. I like to think they're very proud of me. I guess for them it's good as we get to experience a quality of life that's completely different for us. This summer I'm performing at the Vanity Fair party, on Wednesday I'm going to Price Charles' house for dinner and I get to take them with me, and it feels so amazing to call them and be like: "Yo yo yo can you get out of work early, we're going to see the prince." That enjoyment is sick.

There's no point in experiencing this by yourself and these are the boys I grew up with all my life, even the girls like Shazia and that. Wow, we have come a very long way from Ilford, and being able to do this for them makes it all worth it.

Do you still write poetry?

I'm working on a mental health mixtape to come out for Mental Health Week in May.

Poetry got me to space and that's the reality of it, and I've been so lucky I've been able to travel the world and perform poems, but I don't have a body of work.

It's so funny earlier you said "it's not that deep", because that's what my friends say to me. When I'm overthinking something, they say "it's not too deep". So my mixtape is called Am I Going Too Deep? and is a collection of poems.

Hussain Manawer's single "I'm Ashamed" is out on 21 March.

Aisha Gani is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Aisha Gani at aisha.gani@buzzfeed.com.

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