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Big wins in fight against big killer

Young woman sees milestones in battle

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Amirah Sequeira of Winnipeg is 23, a Columbia grad, and head of the national student AIDS awareness organization in the US, lobbying in Washington. Now she’s won a Gates Cambridge scholarship, equivalent to a Rhodes. It all started at Earl Grey and Grant Park High, raising awareness of what AIDS was doing to her family’s native Malawi.

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Amirah Sequeira of Winnipeg is 23, a Columbia grad, and head of the national student AIDS awareness organization in the US, lobbying in Washington. Now she’s won a Gates Cambridge scholarship, equivalent to a Rhodes. It all started at Earl Grey and Grant Park High, raising awareness of what AIDS was doing to her family’s native Malawi.

When a 23-year-old is changing the world, there must have been seminal moments.

Moments for Amirah Sequeira such as her parents taking her at age eight to see their family roots in Malawi and trying to explain the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.

Moments such as the creation of a human rights group at Earl Grey School.

Moments such as an inspired Grade 10 student stepping up to organize AIDS awareness workshops at Grant Park High School.

"That kick-started it for me," Sequeira said Monday from her office in Washington, D.C.

'We won -- it was so overpowering'

How many 23-year-olds from Winnipeg could say they have an office in Washington?

A graduate in history and sustainable development from Columbia University two years ago, Sequeira has worked the past two years as national co-ordinator of the Student Global AIDS Campaign, recruiting and organizing on campuses all over the U.S. She talks casually about "lobbying on the Hill."

That would be Capitol Hill, wherein dwell the senators and members of Congress of the U.S.

Come September, Sequeira will attend England's venerable Cambridge University on a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, one of 55 students this year receiving the full-ride scholarship Bill Gates created several years ago as an equivalent of the Rhodes Scholarship.

Sequeira recalled visiting Malawi at the age of eight and struggling to understand the ravages of illness she saw everywhere. "This disease was absolutely ripping apart communities," she said. "My parents really helped me channel my frustrations and emotions."

As she got a little older, "We started a human rights group at Earl Grey."

Then came another trip to Malawi at age 14, which coincided with Grant Park's annual student-led full-day conferences on social justice issues, and Sequeira getting to know science teacher and social justice activist Mike Patenaude.

"Mike Patenaude had been so foundational to all the work I've done and the person I've become," said Sequeira. "That was the first time I'd chaired my first workshop."

At Columbia, Sequeira got heavily involved in raising AIDS awareness, then made the huge jump to running the entire America-wide student organization when she graduated.

"President (Barack) Obama was breaking all the promises he'd made to people with AIDS," she said, while the Republicans were trying to gut the U.S. federal budget of billions of dollars to fight AIDS in Africa. But students mobilized.

"We won -- it was so overpowering," Sequeira marvelled. "Students really led the political advocacy that led to billions of dollars being funnelled into aid."

At Cambridge University in England, she'll study in the program of history, philosophy and sociology of science, medicine and technology.

"I'm really interested in the history of public health within medicine and the interaction of race, class and sexuality," she explained.

Sequeira sees a career ahead combining grassroots activism with a policy focus on health justice.

And the best news of all?

"I do see returning to Canada," she said.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2014 A7

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