Jan. 1 a common birth date for many immigrants

New Year's birthdays
Amina Adam, left, Gadeise Gebywe and her daughter Darartu Gebywe, top, all share a Jan. 1 birth date. They never had records of their birth dates in their native Ethiopia, so new ones were assigned to them when they came to the U.S.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

With New Year's Day just around the corner, you can be sure that people will make a fuss over any New Year's babies born that day.

But it turns out there are far more people with a January 1st birthday than you might think. Sometimes even multiple members of a family may share that birthday.

Three generations of Ethiopian women are gathered in the kitchen of a St. Paul apartment, where Gadeise Gebywe is rolling dough to make bread.

If Gebywe's calculations are correct, she'll soon turn 44. Her friend Amina Adam, who's sitting with her in the kitchen, will turn 60. It's a pretty safe bet that Gebywe's daughter Derartu will turn 13.

If these facts seem oddly fuzzy, the situation gets odder still. The women all have the same birth date: Jan. 1.

The reason for this coincidence is simple: they were refugees who fled war-torn Ethiopia, and they never had records of their birth dates, so new ones were assigned to them. Gadeise Gebywe explains.

"Back home, nobody goes to doctor when they have a baby. Most people, they [give birth] at home," she said.

Gebywe fled Ethiopia and went to Kenya, where she was interviewed to gain refugee status.

"I didn't understand how to write 'A B C.'" she said.

Gebywe was illiterate then, so her interviewer recommended that she write her birth date as 1/1. It was simple and easy to remember.

Making bread
Gadeise Gebywe makes traditional Ethiopian bread in her St. Paul apartment. Gebwe and several of her family members are immigrants, and they all have Jan. 1 birth dates. Many cultures don't keep records of birth dates, so when immigrants enter the U.S. they are assigned Jan. 1.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"The Jan. 1 birth date is the common birth date we assign," said Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

Cabrera said many immigrants coming to the U.S. never had birth certificates or left them behind when fleeing conflict.

Determining real birth dates gets complicated -- certain cultures simply do not celebrate birthdays, so no one remembers them, or they may come from a country that uses a completely different calendar system. Both of those factors were at play for Gadeise Gebywe.

Cabrera said it's legitimate for these immigrants to take Jan. 1 as their birth date.

"It's understood it's an estimate. But under those circumstances, there's really nothing else we can do other than make that estimate," said Cabrera.

The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security say they don't have data on how often this happens.

Anecdotally, it's very common among African immigrants in the Twin Cities. Gadeise Gebywe's son, Magarsa, 14, said plenty of kids at school have that birthday.

"Like 90 percent of the African kids -- most of them do. You could guess anybody's birthday and say, 'I bet your birthday's January 1st.' They'll be like, 'yeah,'" he laughed.

Lutheran Social Services in Minneapolis serves a number of immigrants. Hassanen Mohamed, who works for the organization, said some clients of African descent not only have the same birth date, they also have the same name.

"Somali names are quite common. You might find someone with the same first name and last name, and the same birth date," Mohamed said.

And that can cause problems.

"I have heard of people who have been denied employment because a background check came out that there is something in their background, but it's not them. It's someone with a similar last name and date of birth," said Mohamed.

"It's problematic from both sides," said Mark Cangemi, a retired special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Cangemi used to run ICE's five-state office in Minneapolis.

Cangemi said the duplication of birth dates and names could cause big headaches for law enforcement officers trying to identify criminal backgrounds.

"You have a myriad of individuals using the same date of birth, you do a record check, you're going to come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of hits. How do you determine who is that individual, does that record apply?" he said.

Cangemi says some criminals assume a false birth date fraudulently, in order to obscure their identity or, say, to get a juvenile instead of an adult sentence in criminal matters.

But Cangemi said for plenty of immigrants, the reasons for assuming a Jan. 1 birth date are understandable.

Another common birth date law enforcement sees is Independence Day, July 4.