Documenting Refugee Girls: World Refugee Day

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Birth Registration

World Refugee Day celebrates the countries that have opened their doors to forcibly displaced people, and reminds us to support people who have had to flee their homes because of war and persecution. Each year, the United States resettles about 70,000 refugees from countries around the world, including Iraq, Bhutan, Myanmar, DR Congo, Ethiopia, and now Syria. While the countries and cultures may be very different, there is something that many refugees have in common: a January 1st birthday.

In refugee camps, people do not always have access to health care or other resources, and most babies are not born in hospitals or issued birth certificates. When families then apply to come to the U.S., there is no documentation of birth date.

Hema at her high school graduation, June 2015. She is going to Northeastern Illinois University this fall.

That is the case for Hema, a girl I met in Chicago through GirlForward, an organization that supports refugee girls who now live in the U.S. Hema is 18 years old and was born in a refugee camp in Nepal. Even though her real birth date is February 19, all of her U.S. documents say “January 1.”

Zamanei and Tiruwerk, sisters from Ethiopia who are also in GirlForward, had a similar experience. “We were born at home and did not have a birth certificate,” said Tiruwerk. Zamanei explained how she feels about her “fake” birthday. “I’m so sad! It’s not really my birthday. My whole family is January 1!”

It might not seem like a huge problem to have a new birthday, and some might even consider it a nice opportunity to be able to choose which day you want to celebrate – but that is not the case for most of these girls. Not having a correct birth date means some girls might be recorded as older than they actually are. That means they might be denied the right to attend high school in the U.S.

However, there is good news. Girl Up recently helped sign into law the Girls Count Act, which will help ensure girls in developing countries are registered at birth. This law is a great step forward for millions of girls around the world – including refugee girls – who want to go to school and be represented in their countries. Hopefully The Girls Count Act will also allow all girls to celebrate their real birthdays.

This is a guest blog written by Aklesiya Dejene, who served as a Girl Up Teen Advisor with the 2013-14 class. Originally from Ethiopia and now living in Chicago, Ill., Aklesiya is involved with GirlForward, a non-profit organization for teenage refugee girls.