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Sayid Abdullaev, who graduated from Penn this May, is one of thirty applicants shortlisted for Kruger Crowne’s Rising Star Programme. He has the chance to be the first gay man to travel into space. 

Credit: Freda Zhao

For Sayid Abdullaev, it’s not what he can do for space, it’s what space can do to amplify his message.

Recently shortlisted for Kruger Crowne’s Rising Star Programme, Abdullaev is 1 of 30 applicants shortlisted to travel into space. But the trip into space is just the beginning, and the winner will also be offered mentorship and a good amount of fame. If he wins the competition, he will be the first gay man to travel into space.

Abdullaev is one of the youngest competitors, having just graduated from Penn. This spring, Abdullaev was a winner of The Daily Pennsylvanian’s inaugural Penn Ten, recognizing outstanding leaders in the Penn community.

From youth, Abdullaev has been a human rights advocate. At age 10, he founded Youth for Peace. In 2013 he founded AsylumConnect with fellow 2015 Penn grad Katie Sgarro, an organization that helps LGBTQ asylum seekers when they arrive in the United States. He is also currently the United Religions Initiative Youth Representative to the United Nations.

But even with his impressive list of achievements, Abdullaev doesn’t focus on what he’s done, but who he can represent.

“I come with not a lot of credentials, but a lot of vision,” he said. “I am a young person, I met the young people who I want to represent. I’m a youth champion for a lot of causes.”

As a refugee himself, Abdullaev has a unique perspective on the world and the causes he supports because of his upbringing and experiences. Born in Kyrgyzstan, he is currently a U.S. resident having sought political asylum, and is on track to becoming a U.S. citizen in two years. As a LGBTQ refugee and someone who comes from an economically disadvantaged background, he could have easily been discouraged to pursue his dreams, but his optimism is unstoppable.

“I’m the person who doesn’t believe in impossible. For me, it’s ‘I’m possible,’” Abdullaev said.

Abdullaev is interested in the Rising Star program, “not because of the glory of going to space, [but] because of the platform it’s going to provide.”

In short, it’s not the space travel that’s important, it’s everything that comes after.

“I kind of view it as a stunt to get people started, to get their word out,” Sgarro, the AsylumConnect co-founder, said. “They think that the winner will get a new perspective.”

“Sayid is indefatigable in a way that few others are,” Ariel Koren, 2015 graduate and former class president, said. “He never rests on his laurels. He’s very focused on how he can make a difference.”

If he is chosen, Abdullaev would use the platform that going into space would give him to broadcast awareness for issues he already supports, especially AsylumConnect. He’s got a lot of balls in the air, but one of his biggest dreams is creating a TV show called I’Mpossible to showcase the incredible things that talented, passionate and committed young people are doing to better the world.

“I’ve been involved in being a peacemaker since I was ten,” Abdullaev said. “What I’ve learned from meeting people, meeting presidents, meeting refugees [is that] we all want to belong and we all want to be heard.”

By being the first gay man to go into space, Abdullaev and his possible space trip would create enormous representation for the LGBTQ community in the act itself. While being the first gay man to go into space is not Abdullaev’s primary goal, he acknowledges the representation and support that the act would bring to the LGBTQ community.

“It’s another breakthrough, another barrier,” LGBT Center Director Bob Schoenberg said.

“I think it’s going to be a major historical event. I think he’s going to be remembered forever for that,” Italo Alves, director of policy and research for AsylumConnect, said. “He’s finally going to be able to advocate for an issue at the highest level. If they’ve got internet, they’re going to hear about Sayid.”

Does he have a good chance at winning? Those that have met him certainly seem to think so.

“Since he’s so good at public speaking,” Sgarro said, “if he reaches that point, he’ll win.”

“The sky is the limit for him. He knows no limitations. He’s great at amplifying the voices of others,” Koren said. “I think that’s the sort of person we need.”

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