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Halima on being one of the 'lucky ones' to leave her refugee camp

Emirates Woman – Lifestyle, Culture, News & Fashion in Dubai
By Olivia Morris
Monday November 16, 2020


Halima Aden is undoubtedly a remarkable human being.

Since winning the Miss Minnesota USA pageant for years ago, where she was the first contestant in the pageant to wear a burkini and a hijab, Aden has walked the catwalks of some of the biggest fashion brands in the business, graced the covers of many big-name magazines and become a role model to so many across the globe.

In our exclusive interview with the Pandora ambassador, Aden opened up about the pressure she does feel on being a role model to so many.

“I know that I am one of the lucky ones who was able to leave my refugee camp and resettle in a place like the USA having the opportunity to chase the American Dream,” she admits. “Most who live in refugee camps will never be able to say that.”

However, Aden also prides herself on being a role model, taking it very seriously, always wanting to be there to inspire young women with her story.

“Being a role model is important to me, not just to the young girls in my Muslim or Somali communities, but to those who can relate to any part to my story,” she says. “I feel very fortunate to be in this position and while it comes with an enormous amount of responsibility, at the end of the day, the best I can do is to just do me and be myself.”

Aden has always done her utmost to spread a positive message, and this couldn’t be more prevalent in the new holiday campaign with Pandora she is a part of alongside Millie Bobby Brown, Georgia May Jagger, Larsen Thompson and more.

In EW’s exclusive interview with Aden she discusses her long-standing partnership with Pandora, the messaging of the holiday campaign, being a woman of firsts and more.

It’s so fabulous you have such a long-standing partnership with Pandora. What has it been like working with an iconic brand like this over the years?

I’ve tried to be very intentional in the brands that I align with and Pandora values a lot of the same things I do. The company is all about cherishing memories, uplifting women, being socially aware, elevating their employees and emphasizing the importance of sustainability. Their goals and the work they are doing is something I want to be part of. When I work with companies, I like to know about the grander impact they are making and having visited the Pandora crafting facility in Thailand to see the work they do first-hand, meeting their team of designers, engaging with the other talent they work with, and even participating in their philanthropic endeavours… really goes to show that they really treat the company like a family. I feel like I’m part of the Pandora family.

Can you talk us through the messaging of this holiday campaign?

Holidays are a time of being together and for many of us, 2020 has made being physically together difficult. The campaign really reminds us the importance of coming together, even if it’s virtually. You will see other Pandora ambassadors and myself travelling around the globe in animated form and spreading holiday joy. I can now say I have an animation, cartoon-like character of myself! It was a fun, self-shot project with the help of the renowned Andy Baker Studios, known for their expertise in 2-D animation.

There’s many incredible faces in it, including yourself, Millie Bobbie Brown and more, what’s it like working with the other Pandora ambassadors?

Wow, I’m always inspired by them. These women are doing incredible things. Not only are their careers skyrocketing and they are true professionals in their craft, but they are using their platforms to promote bigger messages when it comes to important causes and charitable work.

It’s been a difficult year for everyone, and for some the Christmas period still may be hard. What emotions do you hope this Pandora campaign evokes?

Really the spirit of coming together. I think this year, more than ever, it’s important that we all stay connected. The campaign is fun and the masterminds behind it are so forward-thinking, which is something I love about the Pandora brand. They think outside the box and have really used their creativity for this campaign to connect with their audience. I hope everyone sees it and can smile and mostly know that everyone, around the world, is feeling the same way as they are this holiday season. The message is about going around the world, digitally, and spreading the holiday spirit.

In recent years you’ve become a beacon of light to so many people across the globe – you’re definitely a woman with many incredible firsts – what do you hope to portray to the world?

For me, it’s important that those in under-represented or sometimes misunderstood communities know that the world will meet you where you stand. Don’t be afraid to be the first and put yourself in spaces that no one like you or that you can relate to has been before. Don’t wait for someone else to represent you. Most importantly, “Don’t change yourself, change the game!” If not invited to the table, pull up your own seat.

You’re all about breaking down barriers and stereotypes. When you began your career, is this what you set out to do?

My career landed in my lap after taking a risk and doing something that hadn’t been done before. For me, I entered the Miss Minnesota USA pageant for three reasons: 1. To surround myself with positive and powerful women as this was one of the few events in my state that brings together women who truly want to leave the world a better place. 2. I was hoping for college scholarship money. 3. I wanted to show the girls at my high school that you don’t have to conform to fit in and be accepted. You can go participate in a swimsuit competition and wear a more modest swimsuit. It’s okay to do things a bit differently.

It’s crazy to think how you’ve been catapulted into such incredible stardom and have become a role model to so many in the last four years. What are your thoughts on it all? Did it take a while to get used to?

When I hear words like “famous” or “celebrity” I honestly get uncomfortable. I think I’m in a bit of a different situation sometimes as I didn’t set out to enter the world of entertainment, fashion, glamour. Instead, which speaks volumes to the industry, it found me. I’ve been able to find success, while remaining true to myself. I feel like I have so many identities that make up who I am, which is why I think I can connect with so many people. Being a role model is important to me, not just to the young girls in my Muslim or Somali communities, but to those who can relate to any part to my story. I feel very fortunate to be in this position and while it comes with an enormous amount of responsibility, at the end of the day, the best I can do is to just do me and be myself. And, hopefully, that’s good enough.

As we said, you’re an incredible role model to many. Does the pressure of that ever affect you?

It does. And mostly because I know that I am one of the lucky ones who was able to leave my refugee camp and resettle in a place like the USA having the opportunity to chase the American Dream. Most who live in refugee camps will never be able to say that. At times, I feel guilty. I never want to turn down an invitation, never want to look too tired when working, never want to miss catching someone’s name during conversation, or miss sight-seeing when in a new city… it is because I don’t want to let those down who won’t ever be given this gift I’ve been given to do these things. It’s a hard place to be in, but it’s also the most rewarding and gratifying; especially when someone tells you that you have inspired them in some small way.

In the fashion industry, and in general, you’re a woman of firsts. Does that feel daunting at all, ever? Do you feel a weight of responsibility to break down barriers that need to be?

Being the first isn’t easy. People innately fear the unknown so even if you do take that step to be the first, some will never understand or agree with you. To me, I knew being the first would mean nothing if there wasn’t a second, a third, a fourth. I am so proud that in just the short 3 ½ years of my modelling career, there are several hijab-wearing models and it’s not uncommon to see these women walking the runway or covering magazines. That makes my journey worth it to me.

Who would you say your role model is and why?

Without a doubt, I would say my mum is my role model. She is the epitome of resilience and determination. She walked 11 days to cross the border in Kenya from Somalia because of the Civil War. She did everything she could to care for us in a refugee camp. She told us it was going to be okay when we then left everything we had ever known to resettle in America. She is one of the strongest women I know.

What are your hopes for the future in the fashion industry?

My hope is that the fashion industry will continue to champion important messages that go beyond their great products. We all have voices and it’s so important to let them be heard. Especially, because we have the power to help others. For me, that’s using my voice to advocate for the world’s most vulnerable children as a UNICEF Ambassador. As I was once on the receiving end of their services, I now am in a position to be on the giving end.

What have been three pivotal moments of your career and why?

Firstly, Appearing on the cover of British Vogue was a moment in my career that stands out. I was the first hijab-wearing woman in their 102-year history to be on the cover. Also wearing a UNICEF t-shirt with Gigi on the cover of CR Fashion Book was major and an important day for my mum to connect with the work I do in fashion. She may not understand the industry, but she understands the work UNICEF does so that moment really sticks out to me.

Secondly, walking exclusively for Yeezy Season 5 during my first ever fashion week. This was a pivotal moment as I went to the fitting and the look didn’t work with my personal wardrobe requirements so went back to my hotel thinking I wasn’t going to be in the show. I got a call late in the night to come back as the stylist had found another look for me. At this moment, I knew I didn’t need to conform to have a place in fashion. I also felt pride knowing that it’s okay to walk away if something doesn’t feel right. The right people, who you will ultimately want to work with, will make it happen.

And finally, becoming a UNICEF Ambassador tops the list. I was once a young girl in a refugee camp benefitting from their hard work and now am on the other end assisting with their critical efforts.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, what have been the major hurdles you’ve had to jump through?

I think everyone in the world would agree that 2020 has been a hurdle in and of itself. Many of us have had sleepless nights not sure what our financial future and careers could look like moving forward. I’m fortunate that I have a great team and have been able to navigate, strategize, and do my best during this difficult time that so many of us have faced.

What advice do you wish you received on your journey to success?

I am lucky to have received great advice on my journey to success. The best advice, however, that I think applies to all of us during this uncertain time of Covid-19 came from my mum. My mum has always said, “Tough times don’t last, but strong people do.

In terms of your career, what do you aspire to happen for yourself in the next five years?

I would love to continue working in fashion and possibly getting into the film or hosting space too! I have so many goals and am pretty determined so keep your eyes out for me!


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