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Halima Aden’s History-Making Rise From Refugee To Runway Role Model

(Source: forbes.com)

“I didn’t get this career because I had the longest legs or because I was the prettiest girl. I got here because I had guts, and I was never afraid to be the first ,” says headline-making model Halima Aden. As the first Muslim woman to walk international runway shows in a hijab, the 21-year-old Somali-American defied the typical top-model trajectory to find her footing amongst the fashion elite and change the face of the industry.

Born into born at a Kenyan refugee camp after her family’s escape from the Somali civil war, Aden arrived in America speaking no English and struggling with her early outsider status. As Aden pushed through these early headwinds, her teens were defined by a number of firsts, from being crowned as her high school’s first Muslim homecoming queen to competing in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant in a hijab and burkini, which catapulted Aden into national headlines. She quickly caught the attention of the modeling world, a career path Aden never envisioned for herself but chose to navigate her high-fashion ascent on her own terms and staying true to her core beliefs.

When Aden inked her prestigious IMG modeling contract, she built wearing a hijab into her contract and was willing to walk away from such a coveted opportunity if a career in high-fashion meant compromising herself to meet traditional industry expectations. “People used to think, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work, because you have all these requirements, all these restrictions,” says Aden who creatively learned to marry her fashion requirements with the creative visions of designers and stylists behind the most prestigious industry brands. “For every shoot, even now, I carry around my hijabs, turtlenecks and an extra pair of leggings. I always come prepared for stylists…it’s learning a process for us all.”

While the fashion industry is at a crossroads in its embrace of diversity, Aden’s remarkable career has nonetheless been met with criticism and negativity from all corners. “I had Somalis and Muslim folks telling me, ‘You’re conforming. Why would you do something like a pageant? That’s not our culture.’ And then on the American side, there were comments like, ‘You don’t represent us. A woman wearing a hijab? No way,’” says Aden who refused to let the backlash break her.

“Don’t ever change yourself, change the game,” says Aden, who’s has proven that authenticity can work to shatter stereotypes as she rewrites the narrative of what it means to be a Muslim woman in America today. “Growing up, I never saw magazine articles painting Muslim women in a positive light. In fact, if I saw an article about someone who looked like me, it would be the complete opposite,” she says. Having now graced countless magazine covers from Allure to British Vogue and walked runways around the world, Aden acutely understands that her greatest impact is as a role model rather than a supermodel. “To other Muslim girls and kids, it’s the first time they’ve felt like they could be represented in something that was mainstream, American. If you’ve never had representation, especially fair representation, accurate representation, it’s something a lot of people take for granted,” says Aden.

Aden remains passionate about paying her success forward, emerging as a vocal advocate for refugee rights and being named a UNICEF Ambassador earlier this year. Against the backdrop of her international success, Aden’s proudest accomplishment came with her return this year to Kakuma, the Kenyan refugee camp where she was born. “I looked at the children, face to face, and told them. ‘There’s life, there’s hope, there’s so much out there waiting for you outside this camp, and you deserve that,’” Aden recalls. “Life dealt them a different card than most of us. But they should still have the same opportunities that we have.”

I recently sat down with Aden to discuss embracing authenticity, challenging stereotypes, and the power of paying it forward. Edited highlights below.

On Being A Proud Refugee:

“It’s not always what you see on the news. Refugees come with different faces. They have different stories. You may not even realize that the doctor who came in and checked on you, might have been the daughter of a refugee. She might have been a refugee herself. What about your attorney? What about your teacher? What about the people in your neighborhoods, your community? There are so many people that are never vocal about that party of their life because there’s still that stigma associated with it.”

On Her Early Days In America:

“In the camp, we had some inaccurate representations of what America would be and what life would be like. I thought it’d be skyscrapers and beautiful grass and luxury everywhere. The picture that was painted of America was very glamorous and a place where you check your pain and struggles at the door when you enter the country. So moving here was a bit of a wakeup call. What’s interesting is the first seven months of living in America, I wanted nothing more than to return to camp because to me, the camp represented hope and communities and friendships. And those aren’t things that I found right away in here.”

On Embracing Authenticity:

“People are so busy chasing after an image that’s not theirs or wanting to be like the girl they saw on Instagram, instead of looking in the mirror and embracing the queen that they see right in front of them.”

On Success:

“Success for me right now is doing it on my own terms and doing it at my own pace. Even though I have these incredible opportunities, I didn’t up and move from Minnesota to live in New York. I don’t have this big apartment. I’m being smart. I’m being smart with my money. I’m being smart with my time. I’m being smart with my circle, my group of friends, and who I choose to allow into my life.”

“I think that success is when you’re not looking for other people to really define success for you, but you define it for yourself, and you’re okay with that. I’m okay with that. I’m content and happy.”

On Launching Her Career On Her Own Terms:

“What helped me stay focused was that I was ready to walk away. I was ready to walk away from that contract if it meant not doing it in a way that I could feel proud of.”

On Celebrating Our Differences:

“Language should never be something that separates us. It should never be a thing that divides us. It should be another barrier that we cross because we still need to know these stories. They’re important.”

On What She Wishes She Knew When:

“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You might get stung a few times, but still, do try to get to know others. Try to make friends outside of your race and people that you’re most similar with. Step out of that and have a friend group that is very diverse. Your friend group should have somebody from all different parts of the world. It should be reflective of the society that we’re living in today.”       

“The people who are most like me, they understand me. They understand my fears. They understand my strengths. They understand where I came from. They understand the culture. They understand my background. I don’t ever have to explain myself to them. I never have to be vulnerable. But that’s a problem because you need to be a little bit vulnerable. You need to have faith in people. You might get stung. You might sting someone else, but you grow from that.”

More Info: forbes.com

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