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Muslim Model Halima Aden on Defying Beauty Standards

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People are staring at Halima Aden, and it’s for one of two reasons: She’s dressed very differently from everyone else at this New York City restaurant, and she’s stunningly beautiful.
The people gawking at the model include a family in matching pastel-blue sweaters, a jet-lagged Italian couple, and a bevy of thin blondes swaddled in Mansur Gavriel accessories. And also me. We’ve met for Sunday breakfast at a restaurant that overlooks Central Park and sells $20 lemon-ricotta pancakes.

Aden is wearing a version of what she wears every day: an ankle-skimming long-sleeved dress and a cinnamon-hued hijab (head scarf, if you’re unfamiliar) that frames her perfect face like a cameo necklace. Even the braces gleaming on her teeth look glamorous. The answer to why people are staring is probably c) all of the above.

But Aden is not thinking about this. She’s thinking about French toast, and specifically about whether it will be OK on her system given that she had heartburn the night before. “What are you, 50?” I ask. “I know,” she says, giggling as though heartburn were just another quirky frolic on the route toward becoming a globe-trotting model.

The French toast is deemed OK; she takes hers with a heavy pour of maple syrup and a thick frosting of butter. The sweetness and the braces and the fact that she chugged a hot chocolate as an aperitif before breakfast make Aden seem even younger than her (very young) 19 years. If she were about two feet shorter, she could pass for a tween.

Not in front of the camera, though. Like any model, Aden in real life is a different animal from Aden in photos. In photos, she can look beguiling or innocent depending on the tilt of a cheek or the lift of a brow. When she appeared at the fall 2017 Yeezy presentation in a fawn-colored faux-fur coat, pointy heels, and a jet-black hijab, she looked like the ruler of some futuristic civilization that we’d all be lucky to join. Strolling down the runway at Max Mara in a sumptuous camel coat and trousers, she looked like a tall glass of honey.

And at Alberta Ferretti, she seemed right at home goofing around backstage with Gigi Hadid. If her otherworldly beauty makes her a natural beside the blondest Hadid, Aden’s biography is starkly different.

Born in a refugee camp in Kenya, she moved to the U.S. with her mom at age seven and grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a town of about 65,000.

The summer after graduating from high school, she filled out an application for the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, which awards scholarships to winners.

The pageant accepted her. Then a tiny obstacle presented itself: the swimsuit portion of the event. Aden was raised Muslim, and strutting across the stage in a bikini didn’t quite accord with her interpretation of Islam; she prefers to dress modestly, wearing a hijab in public and clothes that aren’t too short or too tight. She asked the pageant organizers if she could wear something with a bit more coverage. “Absolutely,” they said.

It is tempting to thrust meaning onto Aden, to label her, to turn her into propaganda. In a contentious political and social environment, it would be easy to see her as a poster child for the resistance. A woman in a hijab on the cover of a glossy beauty magazine (or walking down a major runway, for that matter) could be viewed as a counterweight to a Muslim ban. Is she a symbol? Maybe. But she doesn’t live a symbolic life; she lives a human life. If there is symbolism to be read into her, it is in our work, not hers.

One thing to know before we continue: Not all Muslim women opt to cover their heads. “It’s how I interpret my religion,” Aden points out, “but there are women who are Muslim who choose not to wear the hijab.

That’s something people often forget.” Aden started wearing hers at eight years old, in imitation of her mom (“Every little girl looks up to her mom so much — that’s your first hero”). Now she’s more reflective about her decision.
“Society puts so much pressure on girls to look a certain way,” she says. “I have much more to offer than my physical appearance, and a hijab protects me against ‘You’re too skinny,’ ‘You’re too thick,’ ‘Look at her hips,’ ‘Look at her thigh gap.’ I don’t have to worry about that.”

Indeed. As with any decision to be even a tiny bit non-average, however, there are complications to wearing a hijab. Being stared at is one of them. Being teased is another.

Yet Aden shrugs off both circumstances: Sure, she was bullied in middle school, but isn’t everyone? “I had friends who weren’t wearing it, and they went through bullying, too. It was a tough time — everyone just wanted to be mean.” And now? “If you think people are against you and that you’re a target, things will start appearing that way. I just go about my day, and I don’t think anyone is out to get me.”

The world of Western high fashion that Aden has been whirled into is slowly catching up. Dolce & Gabbana launched a collection that included hijabs last year, and H&M featured a hijabi model in a video campaign the year before.

Nike has developed a lightweight “Pro Hijab.” Advancements like this are either big wins for inclusion, or opportunistic attempts to capitalize on a giant (and largely underserved) market, or both. But whether the underlying motive is empowerment or profit, brands are sending a clear signal when they serve Muslim women at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise: Fashion is for everyone.

The runway still shows us a narrow sliver of humankind — mostly white, mostly thin, almost always young. Aden has yet to meet another model who wears a hijab. And she herself is still figuring out the intricacies of the profession, like how to avoid getting foundation on her scarf when the makeup artists are doing their thing (surrounding your face with tissue helps) and how to sleep on a plane (pro tips: Get a window seat and use your tray table as a headrest).

For now, the Yeezy-wearing, boundary-demolishing young model in front of me is focused on the immediate future. This includes getting her braces off, finishing her glass of pineapple-banana-orange-pomegranate juice (which she holds like a champagne flute), and getting to the airport in time for her afternoon flight back to Minnesota. Next week: London.

Diaspora

Somali teenager sets her hopes high for the future

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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – War shattered 14-year-old Manaal’s dreams for the future. Now safe in the Netherlands, with new friends, her spirits are soaring once more.

“I have only been in an airplane once and that is when we arrived here from Somalia,” says Manaal, who fled the country with her family. “In the airplane, I felt butterflies in my stomach the whole time. I saw a movie about a stewardess and she looked so pretty and smart that I decided I want to become a stewardess as well.”

Twenty-eight long years of conflict have left Somalia reeling. The peaceful canals and cafes of Amsterdam, where Manaal found safety in 2014 , have offered the youngster a refuge she could barely have imagined.

Manaal is one of 12 refugee and asylum-seeking children living in Europe who star in a new project that lets their imagination run free.

Titled The Dream Diaries, the project sees the young refugees and asylum-seekers reveal their hopes and dreams from the safety of their new homes in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“In the airplane, I felt butterflies in my stomach
the whole time.”

The series was produced by Humans of Amsterdam photographer Debra Barraud, her colleague Benjamin Heertje, Dutch graphic designer Annegien Schilling, filmmaker Kris Pouw and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

In it, Manaal dreams of becoming an air stewardess. A portrait shows her sitting on the wing of an airplane, soaring through a picturesque evening sky.

After 5 long years of separation from her father, who was the first to flee to Europe in a desperate bid to find a better life for his family, air travel means more to Manaal than most.

“When we arrived at the airport, I finally saw my dad again,” she tells The Dream Diaries team. “So I ran up to him and hugged him really tight.”
“When children flee their home countries, they leave everything behind, except their hopes and dreams,” says co-creator Debra Barraud, whose Humans of Amsterdam photography project has over 400,000 Facebook followers. “Through the project we saw the strength of these children and how with the right support they can achieve anything.”

Audiences are being encouraged to stand #WithRefugees by signing UNHCR’s global petition, which asks decision makers to grant refugees safety, education and opportunities – turning their dreams into reality. You can follow The Dream Diaries series via Humans of Amsterdam, Fetching Tigerss and UNHCR’s social accounts.

“My dream is to be a flight attendant,” says Manaal, who will never forget the elation of her first flight – to safety. “I want to be able to travel, see Paris and have butterflies in my stomach. I want to see the entire world.”

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Diaspora

Maine’s 1st Somali police officer busted at Mass. concert

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LA TIMES — Maine’s first Somali police officer is on paid leave during an investigation after her arrest over the weekend in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Worcester police charged Zahra Munye Abu, of Portland, with several misdemeanors including assault and battery, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

Police say the 26-year-old caused a disturbance at a Ja Rule and Ashanti concert at the Palladium Nightclub. She was arrested Saturday night, and posted bail early Sunday.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck confirmed Abu’s arrest, but declined further comment.

Abu was born in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to Maine. She graduated from the University of Southern Maine and became a police officer in 2016. The Associated Press could not locate a phone number for her, and it’s unclear if she has a lawyer.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Diaspora

Portland police officer whose hiring made history is put on leave after arrest in Massachusetts

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PRESS HERALD — Zahra Munye Abu, the first Somali immigrant to serve on the city’s force, is charged in Worcester with five misdemeanors, including assault.

A 24-year-old Portland police officer has been charged with five misdemeanors, including assault and battery, after being arrested Saturday night at a concert venue in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Worcester police said Zahra Munye Abu, of Portland, is also facing charges of trespassing, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.

Abu caused a disturbance while attending a Ja Rule and Ashanti concert at the Palladium Nightclub on Main Street, said Worcester police Sgt. Kerry F. Hazelhurst.

“The nightclub was hosting several live musical acts,” Hazelhurst said in an email. “She was (given) several opportunities to leave and refused. Eventually she was placed under arrest.”

Worcester police would not provide more details about the incident, and members of Abu’s family declined to comment when contacted by phone at their home.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Abu has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending a review of the matter.

“The Portland Police Department was notified late Saturday night of the arrest of Police Officer Zahra Abu in Worcester, Massachusetts,” Sauschuck said in an email. “This issue will be dealt with as a personnel matter from this point forward, so I will have no further comment.”

Chris Besaw, the Palladium general manager, declined to comment about the arrest or what occurred before local police became involved.

Abu was bailed out of jail at 1 a.m. Sunday, Hazelhurst said. He did not know the bail amount. She is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in Worcester District Court.

Abu is a high-profile member of the Portland police force because she is the first member of Maine’s Somali immigrant community to become a police officer in Maine.

She was born to Somali parents in a Kenyan refugee camp and has lived in Portland since she was 2 years old. She graduated from Deering High School in Portland and studied criminal justice and women-and-gender issues at the University of Southern Maine.

If convicted, Abu faces a maximum penalty of up to 2½ years in a county jail on the assault and battery and the resisting arrest charges. Each of the other charges include less severe maximum penalties.

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