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Halima Aden: Supermodel, Refugee, Muslim, Warehouse Worker

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Wealthsimple is an investing service that uses technology to put your money to work like the world’s smartest investors. In “Money Diaries,” we feature interesting people telling their financial life stories in their own words.

I was born in a refugee camp in Kenya: the name of it was Kakuma. My mom fled the Somali Civil War in 1994, and she found refuge there. I lived in Kakuma for the first seven years of my life. So early on, I saw trading instead of money. We didn’t have a supermarket to go and shop.

I look at my little cousins and their parents now, they set up a little piggy bank for them. I didn’t have that growing up: it was people trading goods for services. Or sometimes my mom would sell oonsi, which is Kenyan incense. And instead of getting money for it, she would trade it for food, or cooking supplies, or something for the home. But I’m also Muslim. So growing up, when it was Eid — which is kind of similar to the Muslim version of Christmas — instead of getting gifts, it’s very common for adults to give kids money. That was the only thing besides trade that I got to see.

It’s funny how the tables have turned. This past Eid, I had to give, because I'm 20, and I’m old now. I’m like, “Oh shoot, was I supposed to go make change or something?” I was literally carrying around my card; I was not expecting that at all. I was kinda offended that they thought I was old.

In Kakuma, my mom would move us around the camp — like sometimes we had Sudanese neighbors; sometimes she’d move us to a more Ethiopian area. I had a lot of friends. So I remember a lot of good memories, but I also remember having malaria, like, every other month. And seeing scorpions and getting scorpion bites. But as a kid, you don’t know any better. Kakuma was all I’d ever known. So I would say I still had a good childhood, because of the community. Chances were if one kid gets malaria, we’re all getting it.

On top of the trade there, there’s also borrowing. It was very common for people to be very trusting. Let's say my mom really needed money, right? It was easy for her to go get it that same hour from somebody that she doesn't even really know, and then for her to pay it back. That's something I had to learn — it's just different in the United States, you know? People are less trusting with their money. That was something that was different between the camp and here. I used to love watching Judge Judy —people literally sue each other for $200! One time, the lady that lived next to us, she had a family emergency and needed $5000. And then the entire building came together to give it to her that same day. How people view money is much different over there than it is here. I think over there, they understand, "Yeah, I need this money, but this person if they're asking me, they must really need it."

My mom got injured at a job in like 2010. So she hasn't been working. I'm the breadwinner of the house. And I try to get my little brother not to work. I'm like, "Focus on school. I'll take care of whatever I can take care of."

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It was a long vetting process to get to America. It took my family maybe five years. You've got to get all your shots; there's that whole health component to make sure you're healthy and fit enough to take the journey to America. And also they do a lot of criminal background checks and just making sure like, "Yup. This person deserves a chance to come here.”

Originally, we were supposed to go to Australia, and then that didn't work out. I guess America was our destiny. I was seven; to be honest, I didn't understand the concept of leaving. For my family, the agency — I forgot the specific name, I think it was World Church — paid for all of our flights and gave us a place to stay at first. They're really generous; I think it's a loan that goes up to ten years if not just: "When you're able to pay back, just pay back." So my mom's been paying it off little by little. But I think that system's really generous: get here, and then when you get working, pay it off.

We first moved to St. Louis. But we were only there for seven months. The first school I went to didn't have an ESL program. So every day I went to school and never learned. I basically sat and listened and went home. The neighborhood we were living in was very impoverished. I didn't think we were in America, to be honest. I thought, like, "No way. What?! This is America?" I heard gunshots at night sometimes. My first impression of America was pretty bad, and I didn't know any better, either: I thought that's just how every place was.

Then my mom found out that there was a group of Somalis living in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and that the education system in Minnesota was much better, and they had an ESL program. As soon as she found that out, she was like, "We're moving." And so we moved to St. Cloud. I thought it was pretty; I'd never really seen winter in my life before then. The concept of having seasons was something so new to me — the fact that it's winter at a certain time of year, that was amazing.

We started out living in a homeless shelter. And then my mom got housing thanks to Section 8. And we were on Section 8 I feel like for...probably up until last year. Some of my classmates had allowances and stuff, but for me, I learned how to braid hair when I was six. I was literally ten, earning my own field trip money because I would charge the little kids $10 and then adults $20 to braid hair. I used to live in a building that had a lot of Somalis and a lot of Africans.So that was good money for a ten year old.

And then, as soon as I turned sixteen — I think it was that same day — I must have applied for, I'm not kidding, what felt like every available position in St. Cloud. My first job was was supposed to be McDonald’s. I did my orientation at McDonald’s, but then I got a better job at a warehouse. It was amazing making my own money for the first time like that. The minute I got my first job, I knew what I wanted to work towards. I was like, "You know what? By senior year, I wanna own my own car." So I ended up getting two jobs: in addition to the warehouse, I got a job as a patient care assistant. So helping older people, basically.

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My mom got injured at a job in like 2010. So she hasn't been working. I'm the breadwinner of the house. And I try to get my little brother not to work. I'm like, "Focus on school. I'll take care of whatever I can take care of." I've always earned more than my peers, only because I needed to work. I will never forget this debate that a teacher and I had. She was like, "You can't be working these hours and expect to graduate on time." But in high school, when I got my first tax returns for working the two jobs, I earned $21,000 for that year. I was taking full classes and still managed to work 80 hours a week. I did 5 AM, 6, 7, and then went to school at 8. And then I had another job from 3pm to 11:30pm. I was like: I'm not getting any sleep.

The second shoot I ever did was with Rihanna, for her company Fenty Beauty. And then the first big fashion show I walked in was Yeezy, for Kanye West.

I started modeling kind of by accident. I entered the Miss Universe pageant — I did it for scholarships. And also the idea of doing a pageant was kind of interesting — I've always been someone who enjoys trying on new things and just seeing what that experience is like. I wore a headscarf and a burkini in the competition. It was the first time in Miss Universe history that somebody had done that.

People were really supportive and excited that someone decided to do it for the first time. Although I did get backlash from my Muslim community and some other people living in Minnesota who didn't necessarily see me as a Minnesotan. My Muslim community thought it was like conforming, basically. Which was interesting! If people don't know something, it's like the fear of the unknown, right? It was a new concept to them. It's definitely not Somali culture; it's definitely not traditionally Muslim, either. But I think it should be for every individual to decide for themselves. People sometimes confuse tradition and culture with, "Oh, you shouldn't do this; this is wrong." But they only say that because it's foreign to them, if that makes sense.

I didn’t win the pageant. I was actually pretty surprised that I made it to semifinals, because it was my first time. Sometimes it takes girls eight years, coming back each year stronger than before. My mom wasn't on board yet, but the pageant organizers were really helpful. And I actually did walk away with scholarships: there are some really good scholarship opportunities, even for placing in the top fifteen. But I ended up modeling instead. William Morris — who owns my modeling agency — also owns part of Miss Universe. So they ended up being the bridge for me in going to modeling. I think the headlines about me also helped.

The second shoot I ever did was with Rihanna, for her company Fenty Beauty. And then the first big fashion show I walked in was Yeezy, for Kanye West. I'm pretty sure I scared Kim Kardashian. I gave her like a bear hug — only because that was the first time that I saw someone from TV! But I almost didn't walk the show. The first outfit didn't work, and I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, that could have been my first time walking, and it's for Kanye West, and like I'm gonna go home and I can't even tell my friends about it because nobody will believe me." And then we got called back to the studio to try on a second outfit. I was so excited.

It feels amazing to have a career. But the first year was hard for me, because I was so used to working in high school and having a set schedule. And then with modeling, it's a lot more money, but also, your hours don't necessarily equal work. Like, I was so shocked that I could literally make my entire yearly income in a five hour day. But for a long time, even though I was making a lot of money, I didn’t really feel like I had a real job. I'm still kind of learning how to make it work.


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I’m learning to save now, and also to be responsible — making sure I'm paying my taxes and not going to prison. I'm actually getting my own place for the first time. Somali money — it's so different. Have you ever heard of the concept of ayuuto? The way a lot of Somalis save — and not really just Somalis, it's a lot of African countries — is ayuuto. The way it works is, let's say there's three of us, right? So I'll put in $10, you put in $10, everyone puts in $10. So it's gonna be 30 bucks, right? You take it this month, and the next month I'll take it, and then the next month the third person takes it.

So that's how people save money. I mean, it doesn't make sense because you're not getting profits, and it's also very risky. Let's say there's an emergency: now you have to lobby everybody to get bumped up on the list. And sometimes people don't pay. It’s very different from the way I do it now. Thank God for saving accounts!

But I have family back home that I have to think about. I need to work hard, I need to save my money, I need to think about investing it in something bigger so I can help them. You know: instead of a handout, more like: "Here's a job."

I recently went back to the camp I was born in. There's a lot of work that needs to be done, and many of the people there are never going to have the opportunities that I had, so I have to make sure I'm doing everything I can to help and to not forget where I came from.

Some people are blessed with people who went to school and can kind of guide them. But for me, since the time that I could remember, I was the one learning how to do my own stuff, learning how to apply for that scholarship. Because I don't have a mom or dad that's gonna show me how things are done, you know? Same thing with taxes.

I also do speaking engagements. I started out speaking at high schools and middle schools, and now I'm doing some universities. I think one of my proudest speaking engagements was Princeton. Because I'm like, "What?! I'm actually here?" It's cool to also model, but not rely solely on just that one income. Modeling definitely pays more than speaking, 100%. But speaking, it's one hour of your time, basically. Sometimes they'll pay you for twenty minutes. It's nice, because all I'm doing is sharing my story. I'm just blessed that's my work, you know?

As told to Zach Baron exclusively for Wealthsimple; transcript edited and condensed for clarity. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell.

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