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 being displaced because of the fighting, 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. Because of the war back home, people didn't have access to their birth records, and many didn't know their true birthdays.
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 1. In other cases, state departments around the world would assign January 1 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 had January 1 birthdays. That's nearly 14% of refugees, which is absurd because that number should be about 0.3%.
Today, the January 1 phenomenon has become an inside joke for first-generation immigrants. Every New Year's Day, many first-generation immigrants tell their parents "happy birthday" because they don't know otherwise. Though it can be funny, January 1 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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