As news agencies began to report on the Somali-American teen, Aden’s inbox started filling up with letters from girls thanking her for being a much-needed role model for other Muslims.
“I was so shocked by the support,” Aden, 19, tells PEOPLE. “They’re messaging me about the things they’re going through. And some of the messages really made me sad, one girl told me how much she was bullied, and one girl said someone took off her hijab in school. When I hear those things, they make me really sad, but it also reminds me that what I’m doing is important because of that.”
And taking part in the Miss USA pageant — which President-Elect Donald Trump previously owned — is particularly important to Aden as an immigrant living in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where many Somali-Americans have been the target of hate crimes.
“It just makes me that more proud, because Donald Trump came to Minneapolis, and he talked about Somali-Americans, and how it was our fault that things weren’t going right in the community, and how as president he would make sure that our people weren’t integrated into communities without other people’s approval. And that just made me really sad because America was founded on differences,” she says. “We need to remember where everyone came from. Unless you’re Native American, your great-great-great grandparents came here for the same purpose as me, they came to seek greater life regardless of religion. So we should never forget that.”
The college student, who immigrated to St. Cloud at age 7, entered the Miss Minnesota USA competition to change perceptions.
“Growing up, I never got to see women who dressed like me being celebrated,” Aden explains. “When I was 8 years old one of my teachers told us to draw a Disney princess that looked like you. And my other classmates had the Little Mermaid, or Cinderella, and I had nobody, so I didn’t know what to draw, I made up my own little character.”
“After that I paid more attention to things that were happening. It was just really sad because every time I did get to see someone who looked like me they were either oppressed or portrayed as a victim, and most of us are not in that category.”
But she never expected her story to have such an impact.
“At first I just wanted to inspire girls in my community,” Aden says. “In high school and middle school I would notice that the other Somali girls wanted to go out for basketball or volleyball, but it was the uniforms that stopped them from doing that.”
“I wanted to inspire the other girls that if I could do this pageant, where everybody would be wearing a bikini and I would still find a way to stay true to my religion and stay true to myself and still participate, you can go out and you can be in your basketball team, or you could represent in your volleyball team.”
And while Aden is unsure if she’ll enter in another pageant, the teen hopes others will follow her lead.
“I hope that in the years to come I will see more girls that wear a burkini. Or even if it’s not a burkini, to see more women in other communities come and represent themselves,” Aden says. “I feel like I’m here to help the next girls.”