Mohamed Malim, a 26-year-old former refugee, advocates and empowers other refugees through a unique medium: fashion.
“I’m a fashion guy,” he said. “What you wear is what you stand for.”
Malim was born in a refugee camp in Kenya after his parents fled the civil war in Somalia in the 1990s. He came to the United States when he was four years old, and currently lives in south Minneapolis.
He founded his clothing line, Epimonia, in 2018, with the goal of making all refugees feel as supported as he and his family did when they arrived in the United States 20 years ago. The materials he uses are as unique as his vision–Epimonia clothing uses repurposed life jackets worn by refugees crossing the Mediterranean.
Their casualwear–sweatshirts, jackets, beanies, and bracelets–is sold both online at their website and in various boutiques in Minnesota and neighboring states. A striking orange patch–made from lifejacket material–serves as a signature on most of their apparel.
Epimonia, which means “perseverance” in Greek, has six employees, including Malim. All are refugees. For Malim, fashion with a cause is his full-time job.
On top of being a symbolic show of support for the refugee community, Malim’s brand also provides material benefits to refugees. Half of Epimonia’s profits are donated to refugee organizations across the country, which allows them to fund citizenship applications and scholarships for refugees. Malim also provides employment opportunities for refugees in Epimonia’s studio.
“I want to do more than storytelling,” he said. “I want to impact community.”
Malim has facilitated plenty of storytelling. Dream Refugee, a project he directed prior to founding Epimonia, collected scores of unique stories from refugees, which can be viewed on Epimonia’s blog. This was one of many ways that Malim–sparked to action by the rampant xenophobia of President Donald Trump’s era–hoped to shift the narrative around the refugee crisis–by combating negative stereotypes and humanizing refugees.
“These people are just like us, you know. They’re regular human beings,” Malim said. “Learning the stories of these individuals was so humbling.”
Malim’s road here wasn’t without its challenges. He was one of the few Somali and Muslim students at Edina High School, an experience that he said made him feel isolated. He graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2018 as a first-generation college graduate.
On top of navigating higher education, Malim also needed to learn how to run a business. Learning the logistics of starting a business was tricky, Malim said. Taxes and marketing were just a few things he needed to figure out.
“As a business owner, you need to wear all hats,” he said.
Luckily, he had some help. Malim was able to cultivate a relationship with a handful of people who helped him navigate the world of business.
One of these mentors was Kurt Lieberman, a now-retired businessman with experience guiding several startups. Lieberman and Malim would meet for coffee every few months for several years.
“He would ask me questions, and I would give him advice,” Lieberman said.
But Lieberman didn’t want to take any credit for Malim’s success.
“He’s a very charming, wonderful person who has an amazing story,” Lieberman said. “He has the sort of drive and warm heart and open personality, where there are lots of things he can do.”
Since its conception four years ago, Epimonia has made some big leaps. They created gear and uniforms for Star Youth Development of Minnesota (SYDOM), a basketball team and mentorship program. They also partnered with Minnesota United Football Club (MNUFC) to create a fashion capsule benefiting the Karen Football Association, which is composed of refugees from Burma and Thailand. Epimonia even made an appearance at New York Fashion Week in 2021.
“Our company is all about empowering and providing a platform for refugee designers, artists, athletes,” Malim said. “There’s so much talent out there in the refugee community, but it’s not recognized due to a lack of resources.”
Epimonia recently collaborated with another local artist, Denimani, to bring an immersive pop-up experience to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) for Refugee Awareness Month. From June 7 to June 12, the MIA had pieces designed by the brands up for sale as part of an installation raising awareness about the refugee crisis.
“He’s so authentic in his storytelling,” the MIA’s chief of staff, Michelle Klein said of Malim.
The pop-up also provided tangible benefits to refugee communities. The proceeds of both Epimonia and Denimani’s sales went to the Karen Organization of Minnesota, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of Burmese refugees living in Minnesota.
The MIA hopes to provide similar opportunities to artists in the future.
“This is one hopefully in a sort of a long term effort to provide that kind of space for storytelling in the community,” Klein said of the event.
Malim hopes to continue to bring his work to museums around the country, and to collaborate with other talented refugees to bring awareness to the refugee crisis.
“I always wear my bracelet,” he said, referring to the colorful life-vest bracelets his brand sells. “It reminds me why I’m doing this.”