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Why so many refugees have a Jan. 1 birthday

Cari Conklin is helping to throw a birthday bash for Syrian refugees in the Seattle area.
KUOW photo/Liz Jones
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Cari Conklin is helping to throw a birthday bash for Syrian refugees in the Seattle area.

More than 200 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Washington state. And this New Year’s Day, many in the Seattle area plan to gather for a special party. It’s an important date, but not why you might expect. 

Seattle resident Cari Conklin is part of a volunteer group that’s planning this party. She’s gotten to know most of the new Syrian families, despite her limited Arabic.

Conklin: "'Shway-ah.' That’s means a little bit."

Reporter: "How about happy birthday?"

Conklin: "You know, I should probably learn that."

The phrase might come in handy at this party on Jan. 1. After all, it’s a birthday party.

Because as Conklin met these families, she started to realize something.

Conklin: "It happened that almost every family had at least one member with a Jan. 1 birthday."

It’s surprisingly common.

Refugees often flee their homes in a hurry, due to war or persecution. Important documents, like birth certificates, get left behind or lost. And in rural areas, there may be no paperwork at all.

Conklin has heard these stories first-hand from Syrian families now here.

Conklin: "They were just going to go stay somewhere for a week or two, then go right back home. But it didn’t work out that way."

In the refugee camps, aid workers will assign a new birth date. It’s often Jan. 1.

And that’s how we get to this birthday party.

Conklin expects up to 75 Syrians will come.

Conklin: "Word spreads. When there’s a party, word spreads."

A local non-profit has donated a venue. Dozens of volunteers will shuttle the families there, and handle food, decorations, and gifts.

Conklin: "Yes, there will be birthday gifts."

Conklin says they’ll celebrate all the birthdays, not just those on Jan. 1.

The budget is modest, up to $15 per gift. If the money stretches, Conklin says she’d love to add a gift card, to help each family with groceries or other basic needs.

Year started with KUOW: 2006