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How ex-Big Issue vendor went from rough sleeper to inspiring activist: 'I want to change the world'

Adam Khan was sleeping rough as a teenager when they started selling the Big Issue and it proved to be a launchpad for bigger things in their goal to bring systemic change to the world

Former Big Issue vendor Adam Khan

Khan has won several awards for their activism work after turning their life around following homelessness. Image: Supplied

A former Big Issue vendor has shared the story of how they became an award-winning activist hoping to bring “systemic change to the world.”

Adam Khan was just a teenager who had been sleeping rough on the streets of Birmingham when they started selling the magazine in 2011.

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Khan told the Big Issue selling the magazine was the first formative step on their journey into activism following a difficult childhood spent in care and a spell rough sleeping when they split from their biological family over their sexual orientation.

“At the time I was really naive. I didn’t really understand what systems are in place to help people that are in that situation so I ended up spending a good few weeks on the streets,” said Khan, who moved into temporary accommodation during their time selling the magazine.

“It was very, very isolating. It felt like society had failed me. The period of time when I was rough sleeping most mornings there was a light frost so it wasn’t exactly pleasant. 

“I was looking to earn a little bit of income and get back a little bit of independence. The Big Issue was just an avenue where I could earn a little bit of money. Essentially it’s like being self-employed and that was a big thing for me to help me regain my independence.

“It definitely made me feel that I was putting myself out there doing something good.”

Following their spell selling the Big Issue, Khan studied while living in hostels and temporary accommodation and secured a place to study history and politics at Coventry University, even spending a year abroad in Luxembourg. 

“Education was the one constant in my life growing up so that was kind of the goal that I set myself,” they added.

That laid the groundwork for an international career in activism, which has seen Khan set up community groups, charities and organisations to create safe spaces for marginalised communities.

Khan founded Trans Pride Birmingham and ran for councillor during the 2022 elections in the Kingstanding ward at Birmingham City Council.

Khan has also provided support for refugees in Calais, they said, and assisted in the organising of different pride events across the UK and Ireland last year.

Further afield, they founded LGBTQ+ groups in Luxembourg and worked on a transitional justice in post-conflict societies programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The work has been acknowledged with several gongs. Khan won the Young Activist of the Year award at last year’s Inspirational Youth Awards having won the Young Upstander Award at 2022’s No2h8Crime Awards. They were also named among the Royal Voluntary Service’s Coronation Champions last year.

“For the last two years I’ve been focused on social activism and founding various campaigns and charities and organisations to lead to systemic change in multiple countries,” said Khan.

“It wasn’t long after my experience on the street that I felt a flame ignited within me because of the life experiences that I’ve had and what I’ve been through. I’ve felt a massive sense of injustice in the world and I know very much a lot of what I do is because I’m not the only one who feels that way. 

“There are so many people across the country and the world who are facing injustice. So I thought I could utilise my experiences to make the world a better place in whatever way that I can. It just kind of manifested inside me, slowly burning away. I want to continue creating systemic change but all over the world.”

Now Khan is studying for a master’s degree in international relations in London with plans to do a phd in the future.

It’s a far cry from selling the Big Issue but Khan’s spell as a vendor still played an important role in their ascent.

“Historically, growing up, I was a bit more introverted than extroverted,” said Khan.

“That’s completely changed now but being able to put myself out there while still in a relatively vulnerable state helped me to see the world and see that people do care. Even if one in 100 people acknowledge you, that’s still something.

“I would say that The Big Issue helped in a very formative step for me reevaluating myself and my self worth. I felt that a lot of the earlier steps I took, especially immediately following homelessness, essentially set up the rest and everything that’s gone from there.”

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