Young Success

Trailblazing model Halima Aden tells young people 'don't change yourself, change the game'

Halima Aden speaking at One Young World
Martyn Hicks, One Young World

Halima Aden's career has been a series of firsts. The Somali-American model was the first Muslim homecoming queen of St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she grew up after spending the first seven years of her life at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, Africa.

Aden was also first contestant in the Miss Minnesota USA state pageant to wear a hijab and burkini in the swimsuit competition. Since she signed to a major modelling agency, she has become the first model to feature in Sports Illustrated wearing a hijab and burkini.

Aden has also appeared on the covers of Vogue and Elle, in addition to walking the runway for Dolce & Gabbana and rapper Kanye West's Yeezy label, among others.

Speaking about these experiences at the 2019 One Young World summit in London last week she had one key piece of advice for young people — "don't change yourself, change the game."

"Being the first is never easy," she said, recounting that she has been told she was "not American enough" as well as not "a good Muslim." Aden also reflected on "painful memories" of being made fun of for wearing a hijab and "hearing terrorist jokes."

The 22-year-old said she experienced an "unwavering sense of community" both in her early years living in the refugee camp and upon moving to the US.

Aden recalled that in Minnesota her mom did not have the "means and literary capabilities" to own or drive a car but in the middle of blizzard season there were "countless numbers" of people that stopped to help them.

"These were people who looked nothing like us and owed us nothing," she added. "Minnesota (is) a community comprised of people who don't all look the same but the place that we found hope."

The fashion industry can be perceived as a cold and unwelcoming business but this was at odds with Aden's own experience.

She said that she was "welcomed with open arms", despite being aware that she may have been the first person that designers, photographers or stylists had worked with wearing a hijab and dressed modestly.

"Fashion (is) a community comprised of people who see the value in differences and aren't afraid of highlighting the unknown," said Aden, adding that it had given her hope that many other industries would continue to "include and accept people from all walks of life."

It was thanks to these positive experiences that Aden said she sought to "pay it forward" by aligning with brands and organizations supporting communities in need of aid. She was recently named an official UNICEF Ambassador, having been on the receiving end of the organization's services during her time at Kakuma.

She urged young people to do "whatever you needed to be heard, make a difference, leave your footprint and most importantly, never give up hope."

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