Halima Aden, International Model, Humanitarian, and Somali Refugee

Mohamed Malim Refugee Stories

My name is Halima Aden and I’m 20 years old. I live in St. Cloud, MN. I model, I talk at schools, and I spread the message of being inclusive. Last November, I participated in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant and was the first person to ever wear a hijab and a burkini. This year, I’m very happy to say that there were seven girls wearing the hijab. It was so exciting for me to see this progression. I want to provide the opportunity for other people to get to know a Somali American girl, a Muslim, someone who wears the hijab.

My family is originally from the port city of Kismayo in Somalia. In 1994, my mom fled to Kenya. I was born in a refugee camp called Kakuma in Northern Kenya. We lived there for seven years before we moved again. Originally we were supposed to go to Australia but that didn’t end up working out. A few years later, we got the opportunity to go to America, where my life really changed. Being vetted as a refugee is a very long process. It takes many years. During our vetting process, we watched orientation videos like how to use a vacuum and all these other rules. I remember hearing things like “In America, you can’t spit on the street or you’ll go to jail.” I was seven when I saw a man walk out of the super market and spit on the ground. I yelled for my mom, asking where the cops were. He obviously wasn’t arrested, but there are a lot of things we thought about America that didn’t end up being true. We thought money grew on trees, that you move to America and automatically become rich. In reality, you start from the bottom and you work your way up.

Growing up there were many obstacles I faced. The first one was the language barrier. The first school I went to didn’t even have an ESL program. You were just expected to catch up with the other kids. As a first grader, this was obviously tough to do. In the camp, I spoke two languages, Somali and Swahili, very fluently. Coming here, I felt like my voice was taken away. They didn’t have immersion classes or anything like that, so it was difficult to get integrated into the school system. I came to school everyday, went home everyday, never understanding or learning anything. As a child, you can’t grasp why other people don’t understand you, why you’re all of a sudden an outcast. It was so diverse in Kakuma, with people from all over Africa. We kids created our own multicultural environment, intermixing religion and culture. When it was Christmas, we all celebrated. When it was Eid, we all celebrated. Just having that culture of togetherness, we were all one. Coming here, I noticed that the girls were always with the girls and the boys with the boys. There were so many cliques, it was so weird to me.

As I got older, I got more self-conscious and it was even more difficult for me. I didn’t see representation of anyone like me. At times, I wondered if I could really have both cultures; I was so unsure of my identity. If I was in Somalia where culture is understood and people know you and your story, it would be much different. Here that’s usually not the case. You have to work harder to get people to understand your story. The main stereotype I’ve had to deal with is people saying “Why are they coming here? Why are they all coming into OUR county?” This is a false narrative. The majority of refugees actually don’t get the opportunity to come to America or the UK. Most of them, around 85%, go to neighboring countries, generally less developed than their own.

Another misconception is that refugees are problematic and won’t accept or embrace American culture. My mom is a great example of why this is not true. She is somebody who suffered so much; she came from a country without a stable government. She saw all of the violence firsthand. Yet she has so much respect for our government right now. Now that I’m modeling especially, I’m always being asked about our President and other political issues and that’s something she’s always been very adamant about: you can’t say anything negative about the President. You have to have respect for the Presidency, you have to have respect for our government. I think it’s remarkable for a refugee to think that way and really shows her character.

Success is when you’re happy to be doing what you’re doing; when it doesn’t really feel like you’re working. There’s a quote I really like, “Get a job you love and never work for a day” which embodies my definition of success. I feel successful when it’s not just about me, it’s about how I can pave the way and provide opportunities for the girls after me. I think you are truly successful when you can change the lives of others. Success is empowering.

My proudest accomplishment has been the chance to work with UNICEF going to shelters and meeting families. It brought back so many memories of being in the camp. I remember when missionaries would come when I was a child and we would all sit down together. My mom would talk to them about how the camp was going, what changes she wanted to see. It’s really cool to now be on the other side, going there and listening to them. That was life-changing for me. This is something I wanted to do way before I started modeling or entered the pageant. The fact that modeling and the pageant ultimately led me to this point is amazing. My future goal is to go to Somalia. I’ve never been and I really want to experience and learn more about my culture. I want to continue spreading my message so that more girls will put themselves out there and allow themselves to be vulnerable and take chances. One day it’s going to be so normal for hijabis to be public figures and doing whatever else they want. 

To other refugees, my advice is to blend both sides. It isn’t always easy to do, but that’s what I find works for me. I celebrate parts of my Somali culture but I’m also not afraid to try new things that are American. Pageantry is a great example. It’s not Somali culture but it’s something I really wanted to do, so I went and I did it. A similar thing happened with my high school. They never had a homecoming queen that was Muslim before me. I always thought, why shouldn’t we also be apart of that space? You have to reassure yourself that it’s okay to take from both sides. There is a fear that your Somali friends are going to say you’re Americanized or trying too hard to fit in. There’s also the reality that many Americans are going to look at you and say you’re not fitting in at all and ask you to further assimilate. It can be hard to please both sides but when you combine the cultures, I think it’s the perfect fit. Multiculturalism is key.

As refugees, I hope that we never forget where we came from. When I was in the camp, we’d get food and tools, all the stuff we needed for the week. People really came to us to give us hope. It’s our job not to forget those kids who are still living in refugee camps but to go back and show them it’s okay to be a refugee. They need to know you can still do amazing things. A lot of people are scared to tell that side of their story because of the stigma, but you have to talk about it. Other kids have to see that that’s not where their story ends.

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