Halima Aden: Vogue hijabi cover star on growing up in a refugee camp

Nairobi, Kenya CNN  — 

Halima Aden has come a long way from running around barefoot in a refugee camp in Kenya, to become the first hijabi woman to feature on the cover of British’s Vogue.

She is now gracing global runway shows, inhabiting a world of glamor, far removed from her humble beginnings in Kenya’s vast Kakuma camp.

“We knew nothing about fashion, all we cared about was playing around barefoot,” says the 20-year-old, explaining how she would run with friends around the dusty camp in northwest Kenya, run by the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Kakuma refugee camp.

Aden was born in Kakuma where she grew up alongside nearly 200,000 refugees until she was seven years old.

Her only dream then was to work with the United Nations overseeing the welfare of refugees in the camp.

The model recalls her early days at the camp which first opened its doors in 1991 to host refugees from Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.

“It was good and fun,” she says of her childhood memories. “We mixed with different people from diverse religions and communities and that made our childhood fun.”

Home for the displaced

When war broke out in Somalia in 1992, her family’s house was set ablaze, forcing them to flee to neighboring Kenya.

The family settled in the refugee camp located in Kenya’s remote Turkana region.

Kakuma was set up to serve mostly south Sudanese refugees but is now home to thousands displaced by wars across Africa.

They mostly come from Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda, according to the UNHCR.

Previously Kenya announced the closure of refugee camps but backed down in the face of international pressure.

Most of the refugees living there depend on food and aid from humanitarian organizations till they are resettled, a process that is often slow.

In 2004, Aden’s family was among those resettled to St. Louis in the United States after a decade-long vetting process.

Until Aden’s family made their way to St. Cloud Minnesota, also known as “little Mogadishu,” she says she had difficulty adjusting to the new life in the US and longed for her home in Kakuma.

“In the US there were cliques, but back home children played together in groups, we had come together and blended our beliefs to form our own unique multi-environment. We got along really well,” Aden says.

However, her life changed when, in 2016, she participated in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant.

During the two-day beauty pageant, Aden showed only her face, making her the first contestant to wear a hijab and a burkini in the pageant.

According to Aden, taking part in the pageant was an opportunity to dispel the narrative that Muslim women are oppressed.

She says she was bullied for wearing her hijab growing up and wanted to show people that she was proud of her religion and culture.

“There are so many Muslim women that feel like they don’t fit society’s standard of beauty,” she told CNN.

“I just wanted to tell them it’s OK to be different, being different is beautiful, too.”

‘A place of hope’

Earlier this month, Aden made a return to Kakuma for the first time since she left.

She had been invited to speak at the first ever TEDx event in a refugee camp.

Aden immediately shrugs off any sense of victimhood at growing up in a refugee camp. Instead, she says the trip brings back happy memories.

“This was my first home, a place of safety for many families who come here to seek peace but it’s also sad that it is still a refugee camp,” she says wistfully.

“While there were many struggles that came with living in a refugee camp, I think many are surprised to know that I would characterize my childhood as good. Kakuma is definitely a place of hope. The camp inspired me to work hard in life,” Aden told CNN.

Kakuma’s aerial view paints a picture of an organized and neatly designed city, but like most refugee camps, it’s a mirage.

Aden says not much has changed since she left 13 years ago.

“It broke my heart to see how little has changed within the classrooms since I was in the camp. Refugee children deserve the same opportunities to flourish and be successful in school.”

Aden plans to use her new-found fame to impact the lives of those left behind in the camp and has formed a partnership with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

She not only wants to see better living standards for refugees but also, “to be included in the conversation when we talk about making the camp life better for refugees.

“They know better than anyone what changes need to be made, what has been effective, and where efforts are most needed.”

Read more: TEDx connects Africans