Since 1975, Americans have welcomed over 3 million refugees from all over the world. Refugees have built new lives and homes in communities of all 50 states. The “refugee” designation is given to someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Many of these refugees have another commonality – a January 1 birthday. Thousands of refugees are accepted to the United States each year from countries such as Somalia, Burma, Sudan, Laos and Ethiopia. Rather than hospitals, many of these incoming immigrants were born in homes, refugee camps or even war zones. Recording keeping was rare. Most of these births occurred without birth certificates, fingerprints or cameras to document the day. Frequently, births were remembered by their proximity to important events such as flood season, the year of the famine, or the season the village was ambushed by soldiers. Some cultures simply don’t consider birthdays more significant than other days. Not having an official birthday can be problematic when newcomers reach the United States, where legal rights and obligations often depend on a person’s exact age. Therefore, the U.S. State Department assigns January 1 as the birthday for those that do not know or have no official record of birth.
The practice of assigning January 1 birthdays began after the Vietnam War, when large numbers of Vietnamese were being resettled in the United States. Now, it is used for refugees who come from countries without well-developed legal or civil systems. Refugees are assigned a birth year based on each family’s own account.