Hijabi model Halima Aden on her journey from refugee camp to runway

Hijabi model Halima Aden on her journey from refugee camp to runway

Hijabi model Halima Aden on her journey from refugee camp to runway
Photo: Model Halima Aden attends the 2017 Glamour Women of the Year Awards at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

It’s a somewhat overcast Friday afternoon as day one of the inaugural edition of Modanisa’s Dubai Modest Fashion Week (DMFW) is about to get underway. Despite that, there’s a lively buzz backstage at the event’s main runway in Burj Park during the preparations for Turkish designer Rasit Bagzibagli’s opening show.

But it’s not just any show; not only does it mark 32-year-old Bagzibagli’s first modest-fashion collection, but it also features a special appearance by none other than the model of the moment, Halima Aden.  

“It’s my first time working with her, and she’s amazing!” Bagzibagli told us, admitting that he didn’t know much about the rising star before this event. “I didn’t realise just how big modest fashion is; it has come as a surprise to me to see the demand. And Halima is wonderful; she’s full of energy, she’s only 20, and she has a wonderful life ahead of her.”

It did rain that day, just as Aden was about to step onto the runway for her first look. But she and her fellow models powered through on what looked like very slippery flooring, and in heels.

We had met Aden earlier, and it was apparent that it is her happy-go-lucky attitude and professionalism that is fast earning the Somali-American model her stellar reputation in the industry.


“I can’t believe the Burj Khalifa is literally right behind us!” she beamed. “It’s amazing. I really love photo shoots, and I love editorials … but the runway, there’s something about it. The adrenaline backstage, it’s almost like a roller coaster.

“It’s funny, because I never thought a pageant would take me into modelling.”


It was only a year ago that Aden first made headlines after competing in the 2016 Miss Minnesota USA wearing a hijab.

“I did the pageant because they offer great scholarships!” she continued. “All the other girls wore bikinis, and that's fine. I still participated, but I wore a swimsuit that was a better fit for me. And that’s what I wanted other girls to see: there is a way to participate and be a part of something.”

The internet buzz around her soon caught the attention of many in the fashion and entertainment industry, including Kanye West and Rihanna. Shortly after her pageant appearance, Aden landed a deal with IMG Models, making her the agency’s first hijab-wearing model, and she shared a roster with Miranda Kerr, Gisele Bundchen and the Hadid sisters. Last February marked her runway debut, at New York Fashion Week for Yeezy Season 5.


Isn't she the best !!???? @badgalriri #aboutlastnight

A post shared by Halima Aden (@kinglimaa) on

Aden has experienced a lot in her 20 years. Though now Minnesota-based, she was born in a refugee camp in Kenya in 1997.

“I am a former refugee,” she said. “I lived in a refugee camp for seven years. Even timing-wise, now we’re living in the biggest [refugee crisis] since World War I. The crisis has hit 65 million. I feel like that aspect of my story is important, because there are a lot of kids who can’t look up to a lot of these celebrities. Because who has lived in a refugee camp and is doing runway today?”

Surprisingly, Aden was warned early in her career not to discuss her past. “When I started modelling a lot of people were like, ‘Why are you talking about that?’ Because there’s this stigma about being a refugee. But I don’t think of it as a bad thing. I just think it makes you a stronger person, because I’ve lived that and I’m doing amazing now.

“I'm not just a model; I'm now partnering with UNICEF, going back to what I’ve always wanted to do since I was six years old. You could either be the girl on the catwalk, or you could have a message and do both.”


By her own admission, it has been one rollercoaster of a year: in addition to runways, Aden had bagged a number of high-profile magazine covers, including Allure, Grazia and Vogue Arabia.

“It's so overwhelming to just pick one highlight because I feel like I’ve got a taste of the whole entire world in this one year,” she said. “When I did the pageant, a lot of people in my community didn’t understand it. There was a lot of pushback. It was something new. But now, a lot of girls are entering the pageant. Just in my home state, a year after I did it, seven girls wearing the hijab entered!

“It’s not that girls don’t want to be a part of fashion and pageants; it’s just that they needed someone to go and almost take the blame a little bit.”

We asked her if she ever gets worried that she gets hired for a shoot or show just for the headline.

“Yes,” she responded carefully, then continued, “but I also like to think that when they hire me, it’s because they have already met me. Maybe it was the hijab that drew them. Like you stand out, you look different. There’s no one else that’s modelling with the hijab.

“But I also work really hard. There are a million girls who wear the hijab and could've easily have done it. I don’t see myself as a token; I see myself as opening the door for other girls.”

She continued, “I’m always sharing and using my platform for the right things. I’m always talking about my story. It is quite a unique one. Even as a hijabi, I’m still a black woman. I’m still a refugee. I still have had all these incredible experiences in my life. I’m just 20.

“I think there’s a lot more to it than just ‘the girl wearing a headscarf’. When I’m on set they do a really great job of not making you feel like that. My hijab is never talked about until I’m doing interviews, because I think they get me well enough now.”


There’s a lot that Aden wants to achieve in 2018, including working with Donatella Versace, whom she “loves”, plus a “million names I could give you whom I would love to work with and it would be a dream come true.” But most importantly, she wants to continue sharing her story, and she leaves us with some sound advice on how to help others.

“If you can find the time to go [to a refugee camp], then go. I feel like this is worth so much more because you’re able to really understand what it's like. It’s one thing for us to donate (we should still do) but you don’t always get a sense of how life really is in a camp.”

Aden said that it is important to take an interest in and understand the stories of refugees. “Make it a priority to go see a camp firsthand. What is it like for the children? What do they play with? What did they bring when they fled their country? That’s the most important thing. You bring the most significant things because you don’t know if you’re ever going to get back to see the country.

“And also understand it’s not always sad. I had a wonderful childhood in a refugee camp, because we had a community. We didn’t have food, we didn’t have clothes, but we had a community.

“Always learn because it’s not always good for the heart when it’s just hard, devastating stuff. There’s so much beauty in the camps. There are so many happy stories.”


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