Halima Aden Kenya 1/18/2019 Credit: Yu Tsai

From refugee to runway: Model Halima Aden visits Pierce College

The Puyallup Post reporter Adelle Engmann spends time with Muslim model Halima Aden.

Halima Aden is the first Muslim model to wear a traditional hijab and burkini for the cover of Sports Illustrated. Photo courtesy Sports Illustrated. 

Adelle Engmann


She was never afraid of being a first.

As the first Muslim woman to wear a burkini for Sports Illustrated, Halima Aden, a 21-year-old Somali-American model, dominates the fashion world while never forgetting where she came from.

Aden, born in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, learned from a young age the importance of community. A refugee camp is a settlement that provides shelter, food and medication for people who escaped their home country to break away from potential dangers like war.

While growing up in Kakuma, Aden spoke fluent Swahili and Somali, created friendships and celebrated holidays like Christmas within a close community filled with mostly women and children.

However, Aden still faced hardships and difficulties within the camp, like coming in contact with diseases such as malaria–a parasite-spread infection in the blood cells that causes a high fever which can become deadly–and not having the best education system.

Aden describes the camp as more of a daycare center then a school, since the children learned subjects like math through playing games and singing songs. At age 7, Aden and her family were relocated to St. Louis, Missouri.

While in America for the first time, Aden realized the cultural differences between the two cities and felt homesick. She wanted to return to her hometown of Kakuma, regardless that it was a refugee camp. Aden had friends and family there and never wanted to leave Kakuma.

“America was painted as, ‘by coming here all your problems would be solved’ but in reality most people had to start over,” Aden says.

While in an American school, Aden struggled with understanding the curriculum, since she did not speak English and there were no support programs or classes for international students at the time.

With guidance from her mother, Aden learned her school’s curriculum and improved her English-speaking skills. Aden and her family later moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota.

As a high school student in Minnesota, Aden took advanced placement and honor courses. She gained popularity within her school and became the first Muslim homecoming queen. She later gained the confidence to compete in the 2016 Miss Minnesota USA Pageant. Aden was a semi-finalist in the competition and the first contestant to wear a hijab and burkini.

A hijab is a head covering usually worn by Muslim women. A burkini is a long, loose outer garment worn by Muslim women to a beach or pool. The coverings are part of the Muslim tradition in support of the Qur’an’s practice of modesty in women. The Qur’an is a religious piece of Islamic literature.

At age 19, Aden was discovered by IMG modeling agency and later signed with the company. Aden has been featured in editorials and magazines for Sports Illustrated, British and Arabia Vogue, Teen Vogue and Paper Magazine. She’s also walked the runway at New York Fashion Week as a model for designers like Sherri Hill.

Aden became an ambassador for The United Nations Children’s Fund in July 2018. UNICEF is a humanitarian organization that provides children and families in less-fortunate countries with care. This can include immunizations, food, water and education. Aden also benefited from UNICEF care growing up as a child refugee.

As a UNICEF child and now ambassador, Aden travels and tells her story while supporting programs within the organization. Through UNICEF, Aden later traveled back to the Kakuma refugee camp where she grew up.

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Engmann with model Halima Aden at Pierce College’s meet-n-greet with the model. Photo courtesy Adelle Engmann.

Aden spoke with students at Pierce College Puyallup on May 29. She shared her inspiring story as a child refugee and how she gives back to her community today.

As an attendee, personally meeting Aden first-hand was an experience to never forget. She has very high energy, a sense of humor, humble spirit, and is never ashamed of her upbringing — which provided her the opportunities she has today.

“I focus on today and being the best version of myself. I leave the door open for whatever tomorrow has to offer,” Aden says.

Aden currently lives in Minnesota and continues to work with brands and companies that align with her values as a proud Muslim woman.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

Adelle Engmann

From refugee to runway: Model Halima Aden visits Pierce College

by Adelle Engmann time to read: 3 min