The powerful lessons Halima Aden learnt from growing up in a refugee camp

After all, Halima’s CV is littered with firsts and game-changing achievements that also include being the first model to wear a hijab on the cover of Vogue and the first to wear a burkini in Sports Illustrated.

She was born into a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, arrived as an immigrant in the USA at 7 years old, was the first model to wear a hijab in the Miss USA beauty pageant at 19 years old and the first refugee to give a TED talk at a refugee camp at 20 years old.

Now, sitting before me at 22 years old in her hotel room in The Standard, London, Halima Aden has made a habit out of breaking down boundaries and the hurdles life has thrown at her.

WATCH: Halima Aden’s powerful lessons from growing up in a refugee camp and her empowering relationship with her hijab

Now Halima adds being the new face of two game-changing brands to her long list of achievements. The first, #TOGETHERBAND, a bracelet line that’s made from recycled ocean plastic and decommissioned illegal firearms with each style symbolising 1 of the 17 sustainable development goals the UN aim to hit by 2030 and the second, the sustainable bag brand, BOTTLETOP, that creates luxury accessories using upcycled metal ring pulls.

In all of her work, including her two most recent projects, Halima doesn’t care for stereotypes. She destroys them. Here, in the latest edition of GLAMOUR UNFILTERED – our bi-weekly chat show hosted by Josh Smith – Halima Aden talks about the empowering lessons she has learnt from growing up in a refugee camp and how the experience has defined the rest of her life for the better…

You have broken down so many boundaries throughout your career. What have you learned from breaking down boundaries?

Oh my gosh. I learned so much in the last three years. But Josh, I never thought I would ever get to flip through a magazine and see somebody who I could relate to wearing a hijab or somebody who looked like me. So, I can’t even put into words how it feels to be that person for so many girls in my community.

Did you ever feel represented growing up?

There was nobody. There was not a hijab wearing model. There was not an actress wearing a hijab. There was not somebody who I could relate to in that sense, but I did have Hannah Montana that I could relate to, but she does not look anything like me. She was played by Miley Cyrus, who is basically my twin. But I related so much to that show for some reason when I was 12 mainly because I was that small-town girl. I found little ways to relate to characters like Hannah Montana, but never really somebody who I could relate to on a personal level or something deeper than that.

Did you have to find your role models in your everyday life…

Yeah! But also, you don’t have to look like me for you to be a role model for me. I had women like Oprah Winfrey who I looked up to when I was younger and I learnt everything about her, her life journey, what she’s had to overcome to become the woman that she is, and just knowing that where you come from doesn’t define who you can be tomorrow. I had that those kind of role models. It’s interesting because now I feel like I get to work with so many of the people I used to look up to and it’s insane, like Ashley Graham. I remember when Sports Illustrated came out and she was on the cover, and it was the first time that somebody had done it the way that she did. I just remember thinking, “Oh my gosh. A, she’s stunning, just so beautiful.”

Not only are you breaking down boundaries you are doing it wearing a hijab. Throughout your life how has your relationship with your hijab changed?

So, when I was younger, I definitely wasn’t adventurous when it comes to my hijab. It was more of a, “Okay, I’m going to just wrap my hair up.” I didn’t know much about fashion and honestly, I treated clothes like I just need something to cover my back when I’m leaving the house. It was that simple, I didn’t really put much thought into it, but I also grew up in Minnesota where it’s a very much a, “jeans town.” It would be really weird if I showed up looking like this to where I grew up. They would be like, “What movie set is she walking from?” That’s not the vibe that I grew up with. Fashion has taught me so much in terms of how to make my hijab customised to my personality. I’ve gotten to experiment in so many ways the last 3 years compared to any other time in my life, and it’s just been incredible to be able to transform a pair of Gucci pants into a hijab for example – it’s crazy!

You are serving up those looks…

I mean, my mom says, “I’ll pass,” which is a little shade! She’s like, “I’m not sure about that, that looks kind of crazy.” I just want girls to know just because you wear the hijab doesn’t mean you’re not a young girl yourself. And just like with hair – experiment! Try bangs, try coloring it, try cutting it!

Your hijab is such a massive symbol of empowerment for you which is such a great message to send out there because so many people are saying so many negative things, and actually you’re saying, “This is actually a symbol of my own voice!”

Yeah, and for me also it’s what I grew up seeing. My mom wore it and then I always looked up to her, and it’s like lipstick. If your mom wears lipstick you kind of want to emulate her beauty and I think it’s the same for me with the scarf. I was like, “I want it, I want to look like you.” That’s why I started wearing it.

You were born in a refugee camp and then you came to the U.S. when you were 7 years old. What was your first memory of that refugee camp?

First of all, I remember running around almost butt naked at times. But let’s be honest, that was the best part about growing up in a refugee camp – you got your hands dirty; you got your feet dirty and it was go out and play until the sun goes down and then run back home. But it was definitely challenging in terms of not knowing when your next meal is coming, malaria, the elements and the fact that your entire future, your entire livelihood is in limbo at all times. That was devastating. I think as a child at 6 years old, I couldn’t tell you what a refugee meant or why I was that way, because all I remember was the camp. I was born and raised there. It was home. It was all I’ve ever known. So, I had a great childhood because I didn’t know any better.

It was definitely a happy childhood in terms of community and having lots of friends. It was the largest and I think it still is the largest in Kenya. Kakuma is one of the biggest camps in the world, so it was refugees from all over Africa and a lot of them were my friends. So, I got to learn Swahili and speaking fluent Somali, and running around and singing, my childhood was comprised of songs and that was beautiful. That’s something that I would never ever change for the world. I wouldn’t have had my life any other way.

How do you think those 7 years in the refugee camp has shaped you as a person?

It made me rich in terms of I know what brings me joy and true joy is having friends, having friendships. Even at 6–7 years old, cultivating those relationships was everything. In the camp, we celebrated Christmas, we celebrated Eid, we celebrated so many different faiths and cultures and things that we brought home from our own native backgrounds and we shared them. That was my childhood. So, I think it gave me an understanding to appreciate things that were different, see things in different way. Even at a young age it taught me the strength of community and how you want it to be different.

It would have been so boring if my camp was made out of just other Somali boys and girls. I couldn’t tell you how bland that would’ve been, probably. But because it was so rich in terms of culture, music, songs, we blended everything together and where we didn’t have toys and books and things that other kids had, we had each other. We had tradition, we had dance, we had music, we had each other and that’s all I needed. So, it’s made me rich in terms of knowing what brings joy to my heart.

Also just knowing that you’ll survive. I was fine in the camp. We were thriving in other ways, so that resiliency of knowing that no matter what curve ball life throws at me, I know I’ll be able to tackle it, I know I’ll be able to survive it. I know I’ll get through it because I’ve gotten through worse.

It’s so amazing you can sit here and talk about something that so many people would see as a negative experience and say it’s such an empowering experience…

Well, when you have nothing but that, you are forced to see the beauty in the littlest things, the simplest things. You are appreciative, you are grateful, and you take life for what it is. Now I’m older, I’m getting to work with UNICEF who were in my childhood and I was on the receiving end of their work. You look at the scars, but you also can see the smiles because there’s no such thing as a horrible, horrible childhood in a camp. I think there’s always a good side – there’s always a bright side to any situation. I see life as the cup is half full instead of half empty.

Do you feel you are achieving all these things for that girl who was in the concentration camp?

Well, I still see 6-year-old me in so many of these things. I always tell girls, “Don’t change yourself, change the game.” When I say that I really mean be confident in who you are. Wear your identity with pride no matter what that looks like. The right people will accept you for you and you don’t need to fit the mould. You are just fine the way that you are. I wish someone had told me that when I was younger. Through my campaigns, fashion and through this platform, I keep thinking I’m telling my younger self a message that I wish I would have heard.

#TOGETHERBAND shows that we have more similarities between us than differences and spreading a message of togetherness. How important do you think that idea of ‘togetherness’ is in 2020?

I mean, look at us. We met today an hour ago and sat down before the cameras started rolling, we were able to just connect about London and even, Lindsay Lohan and all these things that just organically came up. I think that’s what happens when we come together. When you can just open up to people and let down their barriers. We have to put down the barriers, connect with people and see them for exactly who they are. It’s so important for me to combine fashion and activism like with BOTTLETOP and #TOGETHERBAND.

What do you think being an activist means to you?

I had a hard time using that word to describe myself and even today, I don’t really even say it. But for me I have a hard time with it because I remember the people who sacrificed their entire life to come and volunteer or to come teach in Kakuma. They left behind families and relatives and they’ve done so much in order to get that title. So sometimes I’m like, have I really earned that word? Sometimes I feel like we throw it around so much but I’m starting to be more appreciative and be proud of myself. I’m doing something, I’m using my platform, but it is hard and challenging sometimes for me to wear that title.

What do you think your career has taught you about the power of your own voice?

I think that my voice transcends everything. When you share your story, when you wear your heart on your sleeves, it connects with people in so many different ways. I’ve gotten just as many messages from Christian parents and girls who don’t look like me, but maybe live in rural Wisconsin or small towns in America who are like, “Wait, you didn’t have to move to New York in order to have a career in fashion? That’s so cool. I didn’t know that a girl from a small town could go and do these things.”

Then I also have some girls who are like, “Wow, you’re wearing a hijab and I wasn’t maybe confident in it before, but I see you rocking it on the cover of British Vogue and I’ll now wear it proudly.” I get young girls and boys from foster care homes who are like, “Thank you because I can relate to how you have overcome poverty, trials and tribulations and still somehow found success in fashion. “I am connecting with people in so many ways that I could have ever imagined. I think that’s what happens when you give your heart and soul and you’re open. I’ve been very open and honest about my journey, the good, the bad, the happy, the everything.

Sitting here today what do you feel is the most pressing issue for you?

The most pressing issue for me, given my background, would definitely be the poverty rate in the world right now. That’s why I’m so passionate to be a UN Global Goal 8 Ambassador, and to be here today wearing my #TOGETHERBAND which shows we are all in this together. I will say that for me, I have such a hard time grasping the level of poverty because I look back at my years spent in the camp and I think how is it possible that today we have more people in poverty than when I was in the camp? That is just devastating. Then you look at statistics like every two seconds a person is displaced from their home due to war, due to famine, due to poverty. I have a very hard time digesting that because I look at the world that I’m surrounded by and there’s so much wealth, there’s so much glamour surrounding life.

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