After I posted a photo of myself and Halima Aden on social media, the model and activist quickly reshared it to her 1.1 million followers with love heart emojis plastered over the top. This acknowledgment by one of the biggest names in fashion is ridiculously cute, but not at all unexpected: Despite being one of the most in-demand models in the world right now, walking the biggest fashion shows and fronting the cover of the most prestigious magazines, Aden is kind, down to earth and just as chatty as the first time we met in Australia coming up one year ago.
When sitting across from the famous 22-year-old briefly talking about when we first met – Aden was in Sydney as part of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia and was coaching me into my move to London, where we are now – it’s easy to forget the life she’s had. Aden was born in the United Nations Kakuma camp in northwestern Kenya, where her mother took refuge after fleeing the Somali Civil War, walking 12 days on foot in 1994. They lived in a house made of mud, sticks and scraps in one of the “most difficult environments to raise a family”. During her Ted Talk in June 2018, Aden said she would often get sick with malaria and it was common to not know where her next meal would come from or when it would be.
Despite all of this, Aden had a happy childhood, in part due to UNICEF, who she now works with as an ambassador, something she calls a real “full circle moment.” The reason she’s in London is to promote Pandora’s Charms for Change initiative: an International Women’s Day partnership with UNICEF with all proceeds going towards helping children all over the world have access to education.
“I think my life is a testament to the work that they’re doing on the ground,” she says of UNICEF. “I was able to flourish. Despite it being a refugee camp, I can still say I had a good childhood because of their programs.” Since her time in Kakuma, the camp has tripled in size, something Aden says is “bittersweet.”
“Why do we still have refugee camps in 2020? But then, it’s also good because more families are escaping violence and finding safety in the camps.”
Aden, her mother, and her brother were lucky to be one of the few families bound for resettlement in the USA, sent to St Louis, Missouri, where she found herself in yet another poverty-stricken area and at a school without an English immersion program. Aden’s mother, who she dubs her “superhero,” chose to relocate them to Minnesota where they found a Somali community and teachers who were prepared to go the extra mile.
Aden’s start in the modelling industry came about by chance. She was nominated by her peers to become the school’s homecoming queen: the first Muslim woman to ever hold the title. After becoming the first Somali student senator at her college, Aden was hooked on firsts. That, and the allure of scholarship money, led her to pageantry and in 2016, Aden became the first hijab-wearing woman in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant.
Though Aden didn’t win the competition, she didn’t need to. She was spotted by magazine editor Carine Roitfeld, who promptly gave the then-teenager her first magazine cover for CR Fashion Book with no modelling experience or even an agency behind her. “To be the first woman to wear a hijab and burkini and still be accepted into the pageant, that gave me the confidence to then walk into modelling and know that I can walk the runway and be on the cover shoot, while not conforming and remaining true to myself,” she reflects. Remaining true to herself meant modelling with her braces and turning down the chance to be in Kanye West’s Yeezy fashion show – her first-ever major fashion week gig – because the outfit they had cast her for was too revealing. Thankfully, Aden was called that evening with news they had found a different look that would work for her.
IMG soon came knocking and Aden was quickly signed, becoming the global talent agency’s first hijab-wearing model. As part of her contract, Aden has a pop-up tent in which to change backstage at shows. Aden quickly started making waves in the industry, which adapted, just as Yeezy did, to make her feel comfortable. A perfect example is when we bumped into each other recently, backstage at Tommy Hilfiger’s TommyNOW show. While lining up to do a run-through, Aden showed me the beautiful custom headscarf the American designer had made especially for her to wear on the runway, exclaiming happily that this time she is one of three hijab-wearing models cast in the show: it’s no longer just her holding the torch.
Aden says the Miss Minnesota beauty pageant is an example she always looks to prove that change is happening. “As scary as it was for me to make that initial first step and do something that was untraditional and something that hadn’t been done before,” she says. Before jumping out of her interview voice to exclaim as if we’re just two friends catching up – “Like, that’s scary, right?!” – “But then to come back a year later and see seven girls wearing a hijab – just in the same state! – it tells me about girls want to be in these spaces. They want to enter and do these things, but they just need somebody to tell them that it’s okay.”
“I always try to challenge myself and the women in my life. If you don’t see yourself represented in any space, pull up a chair and then invite your friends, invite your sisters, invite other women.”
Aden noticed the divide between women and men at a younger age than most. “Women don’t have the right to much in a refugee camp,” she explains. “That was really difficult.” Her mind was opened when she moved to America and saw women being able to do so much more. “I’ve since gotten to see women run for office, run to be the president. They’re CEOs, they’re running Fortune 500 companies. It’s just been so inspiring. But I hope that same opportunity is awarded to women all over the world.”
One of Aden’s biggest ‘pinch me’ moments came when she was asked to be on the cover of British Vogue – another first: the first hijab-wearing model in the magazine’s then-102-year history – where she met Australia’s Adut Akech and found out that Akech, who grew up in Adelaide from age five, was born in the exact same refugee camp as her. “That out was so wild!” she laughs when I bring up the coincidence. “For me to be the first hijab-wearing cover girl, that was like mind-boggling. But actually finding out that Adut and I were born in the same camp – around the same age, in the same zone! – We’re two young girls, leaving that world behind.”
She pauses. “Those stories are so rare, you don’t hear girls saying, ‘I came from a refugee camp and I’m on the cover of British Vogue’. That just doesn’t happen. So the fact that it was two of us, it still is one of those moments where it gives me so much hope. Yeah, Kakuma, babies are resilient,” she says. “Adut and I were both given so much opportunity to leave that world behind. We’ve had so many people in our lives help us, so it just shows you like when we give our kids what they need, they can grow, they can flourish, they can become success stories.”