Pioneering hijab-wearing model Halima Aden addresses One Young World forum

Pioneering hijab-wearing model Halima Aden said she never expected to become a glamour icon during a chat at a global forum.

The Muslim Somali-American refugee said she did not think being a hijab-wearing model was possible until she was spotted by the editor of Vogue, while addressing the One Young World conference.

The 22-year-old model lived in a UNHCR refugee camp in Kenya until age six, when she moved with her mother to the US.

Ms Aden said she did not have clothes in the camp, and her interest in fashion began when she entered a Miss Minnesota pageant in 2016.

The ground-breaking model said she caught the eye of former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfield for being the first to wear a burkini and a hijab at the pageant, and she is now an internationally-recognised model signed to IMG Models.

Ms Aden told PA: “I never thought you could be a hijab-wearing model, which is why I never pursued fashion.

“It kind of happened by mistake – well, not by mistake – it kind of presented itself after Miss Minnesota USA, but it was actually through Cerine Roitfields.

“She just read the article, and she wanted me to come shoot.”

She added: “You have to put yourself in spaces where blessings can happen.

“If I didn’t compete in the pageant, how could modelling have happened?

“If I wasn’t the first hijab-wearing student senator at my college, would I have had the same ambition to be like, okay, what can I do in my community on a local level, and then moving to something more global.

“It’s about placing yourself in the right environments, and having a strong dynamic group around you.”

The model called the fashion industry “a community of people who see value in differences”.

She told PA: “I think in the two years that I’ve been in it (the industry), I credit the designers, the brands, because they have to be willing to move the needle and be pace-change makers.

“But are we doing enough? I think we could be doing more.”

The former refugee said she found the same strong sense of community in Minnesota as she had in the Kenyan refugee camp.

Ms Aden said: “Even in the camp, community was a big part of my life.

“To leave that behind, come to the States, and find community again – I’ve always been really really gifted when it comes to having strong women around me, who instil confidence.”

On the racism she has faced living in the US, Ms Aden said: “No matter what, there’s always that 2% (people who discriminate), but then I think about my teachers, and the acts of kindness, no matter where they’re from.

“That always outweighs the 2% in my opinion.”

The young model also spoke about racism to the audience at One Young World, telling them: “When I left the refugee camp in Kenya and went to America, things didn’t get easier – in fact, the pain had just begun.

“(But) In looking back, some of the most amazing things that have happened to me are thanks to people who look different to me.

“No matter where I go, community is what continues to give me hope.”

She left them with the message: “Do whatever you need to do to be heard, make a difference, leave a footprint.

“Never give up hope.

“Don’t change yourself, change the game.”

Miss Aden is making a guest appearance for the opening of Heya Arabian Fashion Exhibition tomorrow, and told PA she is excited for the event.

One Young World, the global forum connecting young leaders with business and political leaders, has also hosted speakers including Sir John Major, Ellie Goulding and Bob Geldof.

The forum is running from October 22-25 in QEII and Westminster Hall in central London.

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