In Somalia they don’t celebrate their birthdays. In fact, the anniversary of a loved one’s death is more notable than their birth. Many Somalis don’t know when they were born. It isn’t a significant date for them.
This makes the tradition of celebrating a person’s birth every year unusual for them when they come to America. Jozefina Lantz, representative for new Americans for Lutheran Social Services of New England, says that they don’t have time to worry about silly things like birthdays: “People don’t have access to water or food, let alone proper documentation.” But once in America, refugee or no, it is inevitable that you will have to celebrate your birthday or someone else’s. The Boston Globe published an article describing the new birthday celebrations of Somali refugees titled Culture Note for Refugees: Happy New Year Birthday. Most of them share the same birthday, January 1. Due to the lack of documentation, they are usually assigned the first day of the year of their birth as their birthday. As of 2009, about 31,000 of the 203,566 refugees in the United States, admitted since 2005, were assigned this birthday.
One family that I visited in Pittsburgh, PA teaches their children to celebrate their birthdays. Bahati, one of the younger children, told me how excited she was to turn six on Saturday, February 16. Because her celebration wasn’t taking place on January 1, I assume February 16 is her real birthday.
As she munched on Swedish Fish, Bahati told me that on her birthday she would get to eat chicken nuggets. While I’m not sure what a traditional American six year old would ask for on their birthday, I don’t think that McDonald’s chicken nuggets would be far from their minds. She said that her eldest sister worked at Giant Eagle and would be bringing home a cake for them. They would sing her the “Happy Birthday” song and she would blow out the candles on her cake. Bahati didn’t say anything about presents other than that the Swedish Fish she was eating were a gift for her birthday.
Of course, birthday celebrations represent only a minor cultural change for the Somali Bantu refugees. But even this minor difference suggests that other issues, such as the lack of documentation in Somalia, are still relevant. It also shows that even these small cultural differences can contribute to culture shock.