From a Refugee Camp to Yeezy Season 5: How Halima Aden Made It in America

Just five days after she got signed, this hijab-wearing model booked one of the biggest gigs in fashion—and she's not stopping there.

A billowing faux-fur coat. Black pumps. Her own black hijab. Lights, lights, flashing.

When 19-year-old Halima Aden walked Yeezy Season 5 on Wednesday, the world seemed to be waiting for her. It was a series of firsts: her first-ever runway gig (she'd signed with agency IMG just five days ago), her first encounter with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and, more likely than not, the first time the fashion set was witnessing a visibly observant Muslim woman becoming part of the mainstream American modeling world.

"I am so excited to be a part of all this," she said by phone later that evening. "Kanye West was very welcoming, and I think I scared Kim because I just ran and hugged her!"

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(Image credit: Courtesy of Yeezy)

Aden has been making headlines ever since she participated in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant last November. She didn't win, but the Somali-American teenager did grab worldwide attention when she became the first contestant to don a hijab and burkini for the swimsuit portion.

"I was scared to participate in the pageant, because it's not something Muslim girls do. But I waited and waited for someone to represent [girls like] me, and I came to the resolution that if I can't do it for myself, then I can't expect other people to do it for me."

Her story went viral and caught the attention of famed fashion editor Carine Roitfield, who immediately took her under her wing. Aden said she owes all her success to Roitfield, who recognized the impact Aden could have on the fashion world.

"Halima's participation shows how inclusive fashion is becoming," said Ivan Bart, president of IMG models. "It was a wonderful statement that we will work with whatever your beliefs are."

"I came to the resolution that if I can't do it for myself, then I can't expect other people to do it for me."

Born in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, to Somali parents, Aden spent the first few years of her life without a country or a home.

"Kakuma was so harsh," she said. "There are some things I'll never forget, like getting malaria and not having adequate medical care. The constant feeling of hunger and not knowing when your next meal was going to be."

A decades-long civil war in Somalia displaced many families like Aden's in the '90s. When she was 7 years old, Aden immigrated with her mother and younger brother to St. Louis, Missouri, where the blending of "race, religion, everything" in the refugee camp was replaced by schoolyard cliquey-ness. Her next challenge was accepting that she was "different" from most of her classmates.

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(Image credit: Fadil Berisha)

"For a very long time, I thought, 'What if every American had a Muslim friend?' she said. "They would understand us better. It all stems from not knowing. I wanted to be that friend, that Muslim person people could look at."

And so she has. Modeling might seem like an unnatural fit for an observant Muslim woman, but it's this very contradiction that inspired Aden to enter the land of fashion—so that she might stay true to her beliefs and push her own limits, all while working to change how Muslim-Americans are perceived in this country.

Aden's big break comes in the midst of political turmoil. Trump's recent executive order banning refugees and travel from seven Muslim-majority nations has been controversial, to say the least. Somalia is one of those on the list.

"I don't agree with everything Trump has done, but I respect him as the President of the United States," she said. "I came from a refugee camp. I escaped a world of conflict because of the leader of the United States [at the time], so it's important that I keep that in mind and be respectful."

While Aden is hesitant to make bold political statements, the exact opposite is true when it comes to fashion. She aims to use her burgeoning career to send the world a message, especially to young Muslim girls (and boys), that you can be different and still succeed.

"If you're blending in," she said, "you're doing something wrong."

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Jennifer Chowdhury

Jennifer Chowdhury is an independent journalist based in New York City and Bangladesh. She covers the South Asian and Muslim diaspora with a specific focus on gender rights. She is passionate about covering stories on women of color around the world whose voices are stifled by patriarchal attitudes, systematic racism and socioeconomic burdens.