Glass interviews Somali-American model and campaigner Halima Aden

Dreaming beyond borders

Glass speaks to Somali-American model, campaigner and UNICEF ambassador Halima Aden about her journey from refugee camp to cover star

FROM being born in a refugee camp in Kenya, after her family fled the Somali civil war, to gracing the pages of the world’s major fashion magazines, Halima Aden has continually broken down barriers and defied the odds.

The 22-year-old started her modelling career at the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant, where she was the first woman to take part while wearing the hijab. Since then, her career has skyrocketed from her first runway show with Yeezy to being featured on four Vogue covers around the world, and most recently having her first campaign with Fenty Beauty.


Photograph: Bojana Tatarska


Photograph: Bojana Tatarska


The Somali-American has been a revelation and breath of fresh air in the modelling business. To see a visibly Muslim woman on our screens, pages and runways has undoubtedly been a source of inspiration for those who look like and identify with Aden.

Her presence and immense success in the fashion industry has shown brands and consumers alike the true power of inclusivity and diversity. But Aden isn’t here to be just a checked box. She is vocal, defiant and firm in her belief system, refusing to dilute herself down or compromise her morals to appear palatable to brands, designers or audiences. She is passionately and unapologetically herself, therefore helping pave the way for other models and make the industry a more welcoming place for all, regardless of their race or religion.

Not only this, but she is an ardent activist who has given her voice to Muslim women, children, refugees and other minority groups – driven by her time growing up in Kakuma camp and as a minority in the United States. Recently appointed UNICEF ambassador, she also hasn’t shied away from difficult issues such as discrimination inequality and the rights of refugees and women, thus inspiring her supporters to do the same.

Glass caught up with Halima Aden to discuss the advent of her modelling career, her current humanitarian work and what is next for the young supermodel.


You were born in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, and eventually migrated to the USA at the age of seven. Since then, you have become an advocate for refugees and have even returned to the camp for a TED Talk. What motivates you as an activist?
For me, I know that not every child will have the chance I did. For many, they don’t leave the camp. The gift I’ve been given to find refuge in the USA motivates me. I basically got the golden ticket. I don’t want to take anything for granted and want to do the most and best I can for those who will never get the chance. It’s important for me to give a voice to those who may never be heard, for those who are told to dream beyond their borders but may never see what that actually looks like.

Photograph: Bojana Tatarska


Alongside modelling, you are also a UNICEF ambassador and help bring awareness of humanitarian issues. Can you tell me about some of the work you’ve done as an ambassador?
I’ve been on three field visits with UNICEF USA. I’ve had the chance to see the crisis at the southern border of Mexico first-hand. I’ve travelled to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where I was born. And, most recently, I visited refugees in Palermo, Italy, many of whom were from Nigeria. As a UNICEF Ambassador, I’ve visited Capitol Hill in Washington DC encouraging my state’s lawmakers to approve appropriations for the annual funding of UNICEF.

Helping children in need is a bipartisan issue as a child in need knows no politics. It was important for me to show my country’s leaders what the work of UNICEF looks like; I was once on the receiving end of their services and now can serve as a walking example of what it looks like as an adult if we invest in the world’s most vulnerable children.

The fashion industry is constantly evolving and becoming increasingly aware of diversity. What changes have you seen in modelling since you were signed to IMG in 2017 and what more do you think can be done?

For me, I may have been the first, but if there isn’t a second, third, or fourth then the journey isn’t a success. I am proud that the fashion industry now has several hijab-wearing women on high fashion runways and on the covers and pages of the world’s leading fashion publications. It’s becoming the norm. It’s crazy to think that less than three years ago, a hijab-wearing high fashion model didn’t exist.

Not only for my Muslim community, but in many communities, we are seeing more diversity and acceptance. I think of Maye Musk and what she is doing for women of all ages. I think of Ashley Graham and her success in bringing more awareness to body positivity. I think of so many fellow models who are trailblazers that I look up to so much. This being said, there is always more to be done, but I think we are definitely headed in the right direction.


Photograph: Bojana Tatarska


You’re no stranger to firsts! From being the first Muslim homecoming queen at your school, to the first woman to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant and then the first hijab-wearing supermodel, what originally inspired you to want to model?
For me, I never knew modelling was an option. I didn’t see women who looked like me on billboards, on TV, or in magazines when I was growing up. When you don’t see someone you can relate to, it’s hard to envision yourself in a particular space. My first taste of the world of modelling was being on stage at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. The applause I received on stage in my hijab and burkini, a modest swimsuit, during the swimwear competition, still gives me chills.

It was at that moment I realised that I don’t have to conform to fit in. I can just be me and I will be accepted. It was due to the international media coverage at the state pageant that those in the fashion space began to reach out. They had seen my photos and heard my story. Modelling really fell in my lap. I want to continue doing it because this is so much bigger than me. The messages I receive from people around the world, Muslim or not, telling me I am inspiring them … that is what keeps me going.

What challenges have you personally faced on your journey in this industry and how have you overcome them and remain steadfast in your career and faith?
The unknown is always scary. Being the first is never easy either. For both my Somali and Muslim community, modelling was an unknown so people didn’t understand at first. Likewise, it was an unknown for the general population to see someone who looked like me on runways or magazines and it made some people uncomfortable. I say that was the 2 per cent. It’s the other 98 per cent that keep me focused. The people who both look like me and those who look nothing like me that see the importance in the work I am doing and message I am spreading. Change can be hard for people and I’ve grown to accept that I’m not going to please everyone. What I can do is continue to be the best version of Halima.


Photograph: Bojana Tatarska


You have undoubtedly been a huge source of strength and inspiration for Muslim women, Somalis, refugees and minorities – how does it feel to be an important figure and representation for those in your communities and beyond?
Being that I never saw representation of women like me being depicted in a positive light in the media, it’s extremely important to me. We must continue to put ourselves out there, be willing to take risks, and to explore careers and spaces that we haven’t before had a presence. I encourage anyone that if you don’t see yourself represented in a given field, it’s on you to be the one. Don’t sit back and wait. If you are not invited to the table, take it upon yourself to pull up your own chair.

Being a UNICEF ambassador alongside your modelling career, how do you balance it all?

I still live in my home state of Minnesota. I think that is something people are surprised to learn. I haven’t moved to a fashion capital. That is one thing I think gives me balance. I am pretty loyal to Minnesota as this is a state that has given my family so much. I think it’s important to be able to go back home … it keeps me grounded. For me, it’s nice to work for a few days or weeks and then come back and see my mom, sleep in my own bed, and hangout with my girlfriends that I’ve known for ever. It’s important that we never forget where we came from. I also balance it because I’ve surrounded myself with a pretty powerful group of women. My whole team consists of women.

Photograph: Bojana Tatarska


This issue Glass has the theme of “Green” and is concerned with the climate crisis. What does being green and the impending climate crisis mean to you?
For me, it is the little things I know I can be doing that, if everyone would do, would really make a difference. I was recently supporting friends at an event, where they discussed a carbon footprint calculator. This allows you to enter data like how often you travel by plane, the number of nights a year you stay in hotel rooms, how many miles a year you drive, etc.

You can then see what your carbon footprint is as far as how much you are polluting. They then have recommendations on how much you can donate financially to causes focusing on combating climate change in order to “offset” the negative impact you are making on the environment.

My goal for the coming months is to take that test and see what I can do. Unfortunately, I work in an industry where travel is required and I know that isn’t helping the climate crisis so if there is something I can be doing, it’s important that I’m doing it.

You have already accomplished so much at just 22 years old, but what are your goals and plans for the future?

I’ve only just begun. I have a “goals list” a mile long. I am excited to explore other areas of the entertainment industry – hosting and acting in particular. We are starting to see hijab-wearing characters on TV shows and in magazines, but we are not seeing them being played by hijab wearing women. I think I could bring an element of authenticity to these roles.

Who better to play a hijab-wearing character than a woman who actually wears that hijab and knows the struggles and day-to-day of what that actually looks like and feels like. I would also like to continue collaborating in the world of fashion. This year, I released a scarf and turban line with modest e-tailer, Modanisa, and I would love to continue with similar projects.

There is so much I want to do. I would love to follow in the footsteps of someone like Tyra Banks who has literally gone from model to mogul.

by Furvah Sayda

Taken from the Green issue of  Glass

Photography assistant: MATTIEW LABARVIERA
Casting director: RENE DEBATHOTY
Model: HALIMA at IMG

Look 1
Dress: MIU MIU
Trousers: MANOKHI

Look 2
All clothing and accessories: CHANEL

Look 3
Top, dress: ISSEY MIYAKE

Look 4
Bodysuit: WOLFORD