Sabrina Sequeira ’21: A Healthy Start to the American Dream

Sabrina Sequeira ’21 and her NJ Office for Refugees mentor, Shaina Ward

When Sabrina Sequeira ’21 decided to dedicate her summer to helping refugees, she didn't jet to a distant corner of the globe — she took the New Jersey Turnpike home. 

You don’t need to fly 7,000 miles to the other side of the world to make a difference. For Service Focus student Sabrina Sequeira ’21, helping emigrés find their footing in a new land required a trip home — just 40 miles from the Princeton campus.

The Springfield, New Jersey, native (pictured above, right), who is considering majoring in chemistry with an eye on a career in health and medicine, worked with the Office of Religious Life to locate a summer internship at the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) New Jersey Office for Refugees in Elizabeth. There, she helped develop the curriculum for a pilot program that teaches new arrivals about American health care and health care rights; she also helped build a wellness directory of local medical resources specifically for refugees.

In the past decade, the IRC and its partner agencies in New Jersey have resettled 5,388 refugees from 37 countries, including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan. Community Health Promoters (CHPs), most of whom are immigrants or refugees themselves, serve as liaisons to the more recent arrivals. “The Community Health Promoters have really established their lives here,” says Sequeira, pointing to CHP colleagues who have thrived in real estate and are studying for their master’s in business.

To equip those CHPs with new tools, Sequeira had to dig deep to determine which doctors, clinics, and facilities were best-equipped to serve a uniquely diverse population. Did they have multilingual staffers who could converse or interpret? Did they accept the correct insurance coverage like Medicaid?

“I contacted doctors and health practitioners one by one, asking if they’ve worked with refugees in the past,” says Sequeira. “Sometimes I’d ask if they have anyone who we can contact about training and educating their staff on the needs of refugees.”

Her other major responsibility was creating the curriculum packets that addressed specific aspects of health care, like eldercare, nutrition, or sexual reproductive rights. “We write all the curricula in English,” Sequeira says. “Then the Community Health Promoters take that information and the packets to the families and describe everything to them in their native language.”

Her life experiences help her empathize with families adjusting to an unfamiliar culture and language. Her parents came to the United States from Portugal after they married, and she teaches English to Spanish-speaking immigrants in Trenton through Princeton’s PACE Center's ESL-El Centro program. “It’s difficult for people who have only been here for a little bit of time because of the language barrier and the culture shock,” she says.

The ongoing national conversation about refugees, and new federal immigration quotas, is never far from her daily thoughts. “The population of new refugees is shrinking,” she says. “It’s a very, very low number, and I think that’s definitely due to new policies.”

Outreach programs like the IRC’s health promotion project are more important than ever as a result, she says. At the end of the summer, the Office of Refugees surveyed project participants to see what they learned and how the program might be improved. The results were encouraging, with demonstrated improvement in health knowledge, greater command over navigating health care, and elevated self-esteem.

For Sequeira, the drive back to campus after her internship was a short one. But her summer made a positive impact on people from all around the world who now call America home.