Students from the College of William and Mary gathered in Commonwealth Auditorium in the Sadler Center Wednesday, Nov. 14 to attend a talk with Halima Aden, a model and UNICEF ambassador. She spoke about her experiences living in a refugee camp as a child and being the first woman to wear a hijab on the cover of British Vogue.

Aden began her talk by speaking about how her mother fled from the civil war in Somalia into Kenya, where she lived in a UNICEF refugee camp called Kakuma.

“Kakuma is the refugee camp that I was born in, and in Swahili it literally means ‘middle of nowhere,’” Aden said. “I was like, ‘how fitting, you put all these people in literally the middle of nowhere.’”

When she was six, Aden and her family moved to the United States, first to St. Louis, Missouri and then to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she spent her middle and high school years. In middle school, Aden had to deal with fellow students making fun of her.

“It became the cool thing, you know, when one kid says something about you and then other kids hear and, instead of defending you, they think that’s funny and so you’re stuck with that,” Aden said. “It just became the cool thing to tease the hijab wearing, the hijabi, the Muslim girl, the Somali girl.”

When she reached high school, Aden stepped out of her comfort zone and made more friends. In her senior year, Aden was nominated for homecoming queen. She was the first Muslim student to be nominated for homecoming queen at her high school, and she went on to win the title. Aden talked about the difficulty of conveying the importance of being nominated, and winning, to her Somali mother. 

“My mom was super confused,” Aden said. “She was like, ‘I sent you to school to learn. What is this crown business in American schools?’…but to us, it’s a big deal! It means your peers liked you and approved of you.”

After winning homecoming queen, Aden went on to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA Pageant in 2016 and was later signed to IMG, a modeling agency. When negotiating her contract with IMG, Aden made sure she would have the opportunity to work with UNICEF.

“Before I could even write my own name, before I could even tell you how to spell Halima, I literally knew the spelling of UNICEF,” Aden said. “I used to spell my name with an ‘x,’ because I didn’t know my own spelling, but I could tell you UNICEF, and I could tell you exactly what each letter stood for. You know, for me it always stood for hope. Even though we were in the middle of nowhere, Kakuma, it was still a place of hope. The world did not forget about us. Our voices matter, you know, and as children we deserve the chance to just be children. So for me I was not about to let that go, and I’m so grateful that ended up with such an amazing agency because they made that happen.”

Aden ended the talk by opening the floor to attendees and answering their questions, including questions about her philanthropic work with UNICEF. She talked about her return to Kakuma with UNICEF to deliver the first TED Talk held in a refugee camp.

“You need people who have lived in your shoes to come back, because it’s one thing for a missionary to come back, but you can’t relate,” Aden said. “You’re like, ‘This person looks nothing like me. They’ve never even lived here.’ You just can’t relate personally, on a deep level. But with me, those kids could not believe that I was living in their shoes just a couple years ago.”

Aden also answered questions about balancing her American and Somali backgrounds.

“At one point it was like, I’m not good enough for the Somali kids, I’m not Muslim enough for the Muslim kids, and I’m not American enough for the American kids,” Aden said. “So it can be really hard when you have multiple identities … That’s how this should work, when we come together we should blend everything and learn from each other and grow with each other.”

“Find your tribe, wherever you go,” Aden said to encourage audience members at the end of her talk and was met with applause. 

Fay Dawodu ’20 heard about the event from the William and Mary Muslim Student Association, of which she is a member. Like Aden, Dawodu is Muslim, and she could relate to Aden’s experience with her mother. 

“Halima is Muslim, and you don’t really see a lot of black Muslims around, so I thought she was, like, a powerful person to look up to,” Dawodu said.

Grace Burns ’21 is the president of UNICEF at William and Mary, which co-hosted the event with AMP.

“It really is difficult to come from that perspective, come from our Western perspective as being Americans and growing up here and see that when you’re a child, you don’t see the refugee camp,” Burn said. “You just see the community and the people, I think that was a really profound way of talking about something that really doesn’t get talked about a lot today.”