Here's why my parents and a lot of other immigrants have birthdays on January 1st

My parents were born in Eritrea, when the country was on the cusp of what would become a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. After having fought in the war for some time, they fled to Sudan where they applied to be immigrants to the US. There was one problem when they were filling out their applications, though. Due to the conflict back home, my mother didn’t know when her birthday was.

Similar situations played out for thousands of other refugees. In some cases, applicants who didn’t know their birthdays would choose the easiest date they could remember: January 1st. In other cases, state departments around the world would assign January 1st to applicants who didn’t know their birthdays.

In fact, in 2009, of the nearly 80,000 refugees who came to the US, 11,000 of them had January 1st birthdays. That’s nearly 14% of refugees, which is absurd because that number should be around 0.3%.

Today, the January 1st phenomenon has become an inside joke for first-generation immigrants like me. Every New Year’s Day, I tell my mum “happy birthday” and she laughs. Although it’s funny for people like me, January 1st is always a stark reminder of the great lengths that my parents and other immigrants have gone through to get here.

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