Born a Refugee, Model Halima Aden Is Standing Up for Migrant Children

July 5, 2018

UNICEF's newest Ambassador, Halima Aden, says refugees need hope and opportunities, not pity: "What we want is to be invited to the conversation." 

Returning to Kakuma, the refugee camp in northwestern Kenya where she was born in 1997, wasn't easy for Halima Aden. She spent her early childhood in this sprawling settlement, home to 185,000 refugees and asylum seekers — the majority of them women and children — displaced by war, famine and persecution. "My biggest fear was not being able to recognize the place I called home for seven years," says the Somali-American model, who recently visited Kakuma for the first time since her departure in 2004. "I kind of prepared myself for the worst."

I know millions of other people, other girls my age, they got to stay behind. They got to live their lives out here. And I escaped. I made it out.

"I feel really guilty sometimes. I think, okay, did I make the most out of my journey to America? Did I make the most out of my life? I know millions of other people, other girls my age, they got to stay behind. They got to live their lives out here. And I escaped. I made it out." 

On a visit to Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp, where she was born in 1997, Somali-American model Halima Aden showed students her photo in a fashion magazine. © Julianne Feller for UNICEF USA

An observant Muslim, Somali-American model Halima Aden proudly wears her hijab 

A lot has changed for Halima since she left Kakuma. When she was seven, she and her mother and younger brother received permission to emigrate to the U.S. As a high school student in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Halima, an observant Muslim, was voted homecoming queen and became the first contestant to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. "The hijab is a symbol that we wear on our heads, but I want people to know that it is my choice. I'm doing it because I want to do it," she told The Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I wanted people to see that you could still be really cute and modest at the same time."

You don't have to conform. You don't have to take off your scarf. It always comes down to choice: Letting people live the kind of life they want to live.

At 19, Halima became the first hijabi model to sign with top modeling agency IMG. She has appeared in the pages of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Teen Vogue and Glamour and walked the runways in New York and Milan. When she's not in front of the cameras, Halima spends her time speaking to students about the importance of inclusion and acceptance by sharing her personal story."That's my whole point: You don't have to conform. You don't have to take off your scarf," she explains. "It always comes down to choice: Letting people live the kind of life they want to live." 

Unicef's newest Ambassador, 20-year-old Somali-American fashion model Halima Aden, was born in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, home to 185,000 refugees and asylum seekers from 19 countries fleeing war, famine and persecution. At 19, she became the first to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant.  © Future Productions

Separating migrant children from their parents is deeply traumatizing and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse

Now more than ever, as more than 2,000 children forcibly separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border remain in detention, not knowing when or if they'll ever be reunited with their families, Halima's experience as a refugee has inspired her to continue speaking out on behalf of migrant children everywhere. "I was a child refugee and I can't even imagine the trauma that would come from being ripped from my mother," she told Teen Vogue. "It leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Child refugees are a nonpartisan issue."

I was a child refugee and I can't even imagine the trauma that would come from being ripped from my mother.

In 2017, Halima traveled to the Mexico-Guatemala border to learn how UNICEF supports and protects Central American children and youth fleeing gang violence, persecution and extreme poverty.  In June, Halima officially became a UNICEF Ambassador, joining the ranks of P!NK, Selena Gomez and Lucy Liu. As a small child in Kakuma, she remembers that UNICEF's presence in the camp was a reminder that she was not forgotten. "Before I could sign my own name, when I was literally doing 'x' for my name, I could spell UNICEF."

Refugees want the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their children

What refugees want most, says Halima, is not pity but the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their children. "What we want is to be invited to the conversation." Education, sanitation facilities, safe drinking water. "Think of ways we can have that." 

In 2017, Halima traveled to the Mexico-Guatemala border to learn more about UNICEF's programs supporting young migrants from Central America fleeing extreme violence who have been detained in Mexican shelters. When Halima and her family left Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and emigrated to the U.S., the International Organization for Migration (IOM) gave her a plastic bag to hold her belongings. She saved the bag as a reminder of her years as a refugee, and brought it with her on her trip to visit migrant children and teens from Central America. © UNICEF USA

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In June 2018, Halima spoke at the world's first TEDx event in a refugee camp at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya's Turkana county. Watch participants tell their extraordinary stories of resilience, contribution and creativity here. 

Top photo: UNICEF's newest Ambassador, Somali-American fashion model Halima Aden (center), recently visited Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp, where she lived for the first seven years of her life. © Julianne Feller for UNICEF USA