New Year's birthdays aplenty

Abdalla Ali thinks he might have been born during the rainy season. He is pretty sure the year was 1984, but he doesn't know which month.

Ali grew up not knowing his age or tracking his birthday.

But each year in San Diego, where he now lives with his wife, siblings and dozens of other Somali Bantus, Ali and his fellow refugees celebrate together. They all share the same birthday: New Year's Day.

Of the nearly 80,000 refugees resettled in the United States this year, almost 11,000 have been given Jan. 1 birthdays, according to the State Department. The practice of having overseas State Department or United Nations workers assign a New Year's Day birthday to people who do not know when they actually were born is not a formal policy, but it has become common around the world.

Refugees from Burma, Sudan, Laos and Ethiopia are among the many who officially will turn one year older today.

Many of the newcomers were born in homes rather than hospitals, without birth certificates, handprints or cameras to document the day. Others were born in refugee camps or in war zones, where record-keeping was rare. Frequently, births were remembered by their proximity to important events -- the year of the famine, the season the village was ambushed by soldiers, the time of the flood.

While some parents were uneducated and didn't know how to record their children's births, others, like the Hmong from Laos, simply didn't consider birthdays more significant than other days.

"Birthdays weren't that important," said Joy Hofer, vice president of the International Institute of Los Angeles. "The important events are death and marriage, that's it."

Ali, who believes he is 26, said he was surprised by how much attention Americans paid to birthdays. But he quickly adapted to the rituals of birthday cakes, candles, wishes and gifts.

"Having parties is nice," he said. "It's very nice to know how old I am and to celebrate my age."

Even though he is glad to have a birthday to commemorate each year, Ali said another date is still more important to him -- the day he arrived in America.

The practice of assigning Jan. 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, said Beth Schlachter, a spokeswoman for the State Department. Refugees are assigned a birth year based on each family's own account.

"If you don't have a court system and you don't have records, birthdays become fungible," Schlachter said.

Not knowing their correct birthdays can cause problems when newcomers reach a country such as the United States, where legal rights and obligations often depend on a person's exact age. If a young refugee is actually 16, but is given an age of 19, he may be unable to enroll in school. And if an older refugee is really 70 but thinks she is 60, she won't be immediately eligible for Social Security benefits.

"If you get your date of birth wrong, it's a problem," said Sharlu Tusaw, 36, of Burma, who has worked with refugees in Bakersfield. "Whether too young or too old, you have to get it right."

UNICEF is working to improve birth registration so children from developing countries have access to healthcare and education and so they are protected from underage employment, marriage or military service.

Some wish they knew the actual date more precisely. Burmese refugee Eh Lah said it simply wasn't in her culture to remember or celebrate birthdays. And even if it had been, there was no money for a party.

She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after her parents fled Burma, now officially called Myanmar. Her parents died when she was 3. Before coming to the United States, her uncle estimated Lah's age based on the births of his own children.

She was assigned the birthday of Jan. 1, 1984.

"It makes me sad," she said. "I want to know the right month, date and year I was born."

Another refugee from Burma, Ban Ban, had his first birthday party last year -- when, according to his documents, he turned 20.

Ban was born in Burma and then moved to a refugee camp in Thailand as a teenager. There, he lived in a hut without running water or electricity and cooked over a charcoal fire. The only days his family celebrated were weddings and his ethnic group's New Year.

Arriving in America in 2007, Ban was assigned Jan. 1 as a birthday. Now he lives in Bakersfield, where he takes English classes and works as a caregiver for disabled people. Ban said he has gotten used to writing his date of birth, including on his applications for college classes, car insurance and a bank account.

At the beginning of 2009, his boss threw a party for everyone with a January birthday.

At the party, Ban got a birthday cake (cheesecake), a present (a pair of pants that was too small), lunch (Filipino food) and a lot of birthday wishes. He blew out the candle, but said he didn't know until later that he was supposed to make a wish.

"Everybody said, 'Happy birthday,' and they shake my hand," he said. "Some people give me a kiss. . . . It was very strange."

Ban also got another surprise that day: a traffic ticket. The officer didn't mention the birthday.

He said sharing his birthday with other refugees -- and with New Year's -- makes him feel special.

"I feel like I am going to start a new life every year," he said.

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