For Many Somali-Americans, Happy New Year Means Happy Birthday

Many refugees were assigned Jan. 1 as their birth date — their birth records were destroyed in wars or they never kept track. 

By Maya Rao

Nur Mohamed turned 48 on the first day of 2020, but it didn’t feel special. First, he probably wasn’t born on Jan. 1. Second, he knows lots of people with the same birthday.

“If you go on Facebook, you’re going to see many people with their birthday,” said Mohamed, who was born in Somalia and came to the United States from a Kenyan refugee camp in 1996.

Thousands of Somali-Americans turned a year older on New Year’s Day, prompting some good-natured ribbing on social media. “Happy birthday to 50% of the Somali diaspora population,” said one commenter on Twitter.

“It became a joke where people will say, ‘Happy New Year to my Somali friends, and happy birthday to them, too,’ ” said Abdirahman Mukhtar, community engagement and outreach coordinator at the Minneapolis Park Board.

Many refugees were assigned Jan. 1 as their birth date — their birth records were destroyed in wars or they never kept track of the month or day they were born. The new date was generic and easy to remember.

“You would be laughed at if you were in Somalia and you say, ‘I’m going to celebrate somebody’s birth date,’ ” said Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, author of “Somalis in Minnesota.” “The majority of us were born in a nomadic life or we did not actually attach that much to the date itself.”

He added that religious holidays were considered more important to celebrate each year.

After a child is born in Somalia, parents hold a celebration and pray for the child to be blessed, said Mahamed Cali, but the event isn’t something to recognize annually. When they were in refugee camps, parents didn’t know the exact day of birth for all of their children, often just the year. Cali came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1993 and was also given a Jan. 1 birth date. His wife shares the same birthday.

“She will cook very good food” for the occasion, said Cali, executive director of community radio station KALY (101.7 FM).

He planned to talk about people’s birthday goals on the radio show on Jan. 1, but said the focus changed after a recent car bomb attack outside Mogadishu left 79 people dead and 149 injured.

“It’s not a good time for celebration — it’s a time for prayer and doing fundraising for their community and loved ones, and people have a broken heart for what happened,” said Cali.

Abdirahman Ahmed said he hasn’t noticed many people celebrating their birthdays on New Year’s Day at Safari Restaurant, which he owns.

“A lot of Somalis don’t celebrate birthdays,” said Ahmed, who knows he was born in August. “I’ve never celebrated mine.”

Abdiwali Haji, of Hopkins, thinks his real birthday is Oct. 15, 1979. But his family had no supporting documents, and when they immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1990s he was assigned Jan. 1, 1980. His mother and siblings also received Jan. 1 birthdays.

“Today my daughter told me ‘Happy fake birthday,’ ” Haji said with amusement. But the new date is used on the documents he relies on to work and have a life in the U.S. — he has no use for the old one. “I said, ‘I like this birthday because this is how I make my living now.’ ”

Haji was at Sagal Restaurant and Coffee in Cedar-Riverside, where dozens of men were eating traditional Somali food, drinking coffee and watching a soccer game between Arsenal and Manchester United. Sitting next to him was Yasin Tarah, who was turning 53 on Wednesday. The birthday was created for him when he came to the U.S. in 2012, according to Tarah. He told immigration officials the year he was born, and they added Jan. 1.

Neither man considered Wednesday much of a big day.

“We barely remember our birthday. … Even if you know your birthday, it’s not a big deal,” said Haji.

Even his American-born children learned not to expect presents and cakes on their birthdays.

“We told them not to. … I just want them to be a normal Somali kid,” said Haji.

Mohamed said he was busy on his birthday working his job behind the counter at a coffee and pastry shop at Karmel Mall in south Minneapolis — there was no chance to celebrate.

“I’m a grown man — I don’t have the time for that,” he said.

Source: Star Tribune

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