A love story, living in the poorest city in France and lots of ice cream – here are the untold tales of my master’s research following the publication of my thesis Discrimination as A Barrier to Romani Women’s Health and Empowerment: A Qualitative Study.
In graduate school, I didn’t consider myself romantic. I could barely commit to a Netflix series let alone a relationship. So, I wasn’t willing to admit I had chased a boy back to France.
“I just love the baguettes, the macarons, the wine…” I would say nostalgically when anyone in my master’s cohort asked me why I wanted to do my internship in France. Truly, I didn’t care about the topic of my project – as long as it led to another summer near the Côte d'Azur. Little did I know I would be in for a rude awakening when I landed in Marseille.
The moment I stepped foot into the streets of my new neighborhood in “the African quarter”, I could see why Marseille was called “the brothel of France”. Jetlagged and with my luggage lost in Portugal, I felt as though I was in a dark dream as I walked through winding streets colored with graffiti and drenched in the stench of urine, hard liquor, and fresh bread.
For two months, my home was a closet-sized seventh-story apartment in a complex for vulnerable youth. Whether my housing placement was intentional or the result of a miscommunication between my internship director and Harvard, I still do not know. In any case, I eagerly and somewhat naively embraced "living in poverty" as an ethnographic experiment.
But what I quickly discovered was that by virtue of my privilege, I could never truly experience poverty. I could live off of baguettes and ripe tomatoes in an apartment with shoddy plumbing and broken appliances, but I could also blend in at air-conditioned crêperies and Wi-Fi cafes when I grew tired of pretending to be poor. I could be kept from sleep by heatwaves, mosquitos, and dust from construction that made it impossible to breathe, but I could just as easily fantasize about the comfort of the bed I’d soon return to.
During my two months in Marseille, I was kept awake by the deafening roar of music and sirens from the streets. And were the shouts in the apartment separated from me by a paper-thin wall the sounds of domestic violence or was my imagination running wild?
I was cat-called every day as I walked through my neighborhood, hiding my gaze with dark glasses, especially at night. I was followed by strange men on occasion and was solicited for prostitution twice in one day when I had apparently stopped to read a book on the wrong park bench.
I was drowning in my own emotions.
Yet still, this was not my real life. At the drop of a dime, I could board a plane and return to my cushy life eating $15 salads and studying on the upholstered couches of Harvard’s libraries. I would never fully comprehend the discrimination I had been hired to “fix” during my internship.
The Roma are the largest, most marginalized ethnic minority group in Europe and one that I had little insider knowledge about before my summer in Marseille. In my work with Habitat Alternatif Social (HAS), a housing association for migrants, minorities, and people living in poverty, I was tasked with designing and conducting a qualitative study to explore barriers to accessing preventative health services among Romani women. The goal, I was told, was to “empower” women housed by the association.
Through interviews, observation, and my own lived experience in Marseille, I quickly learned healthcare access was not something I could solve with a few bullet points in a presentation or a weekend workshop on eating vegetables and keeping dental appointments. Migrants and minorities in France face both structural and outright discrimination in every aspect of their daily lives, from housing to healthcare to employment. This issue is not unlike what we see in America and throughout most wealthy countries and certainly one that demanded greater power than my thesis alone.
At the time, I didn’t have the words to express any of what I was seeing, hearing, or feeling. I didn’t trust my ability to form sentences when I witnessed scenes that misaligned with my morality – the girl outside the bakery who was shooed away for begging its patrons for coins, the family sleeping under an awning by the train station, the jarringly visible divide between the wealthy and the poor of Marseille.
I was living amidst these gross inequities, and all I could do was post stupid pictures of ice cream cones. And when one of the directors of HAS looked to me as he pointed his finger at a woman dressed in a burqa and said, “This is the problem with my country,” my only reaction was stunned silence. I hated myself for that.
But what about the boy?
Parallel to my research was an unfulfilled longing. Each morning in Marseille, I would run to a rocky ledge where I could see the entire coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. Sunkissed and drenched in sweat, I would dream of hurdling the water that separated me from Nice, where we would laugh in the grass of the park and take road trips to the mountains just like when we were younger. But I was too timid to make the leap.
I nearly bought myself a train ticket to Nice during the final weekend of my internship, but a gut feeling persuaded me against it. He said he would travel to me instead.
The fantasy screeched to an abrupt halt when, later that week, I awakened with a start to my bug bites and the feeling of the summer heat creeping into my open windows. Still foggy-eyed, I saw from the blue light of my phone a message about the terrorist attacks in Nice. A cargo truck had driven through the crowds celebrating France’s national holiday on the Promenade des Anglais, the seaside stretch of land I had run along each morning when I studied abroad in the city.
Inevitably, there would be no visit that weekend. He was called into work at the hospital, where he told me he was surrounded by wounded bodies. I felt selfish for being heartbroken.
The next morning on my run, the July sun beat down unforgivingly upon my limbs. As it did each morning, the crisp blue water tempted me, and like always, I wished I could fly across the sea. But this morning, unlike others, I found myself scouting out a ledge that looked inviting. Seeing I was alone, I brushed my bashfulness aside and in true French fashion, stripped down to barely naked. I took a breath and squinted my eyes shut. And I dove in.
I flailed about, somewhat shocked by the chill of the water, until my legs found a familiar rhythm. Fully submerged, the water refreshed the heat that had been pent-up in my body. After a brief moment, I emerged to the surface laughing for perhaps the first time all summer, I climbed back onto the rock I had jumped from and let the sun dry my unprotected skin. Still too numb for tears, I stared out across the sea to Nice and smiled at what could have been.
Unsurprisingly, all that came to me when I sat down to write was a flood of jumbled, jargon-heavy, nonsensical words that formed an unreadable thesis in which I tried (and failed) to remove my bias from the research. The first time I submitted my work for publication, I was told by the reviewer my attempt at condemning the health system of racism came off as racist. Further, the literature that framed my paper was whitewashed when there were talented Romani women whose work I could pull from – no surprise their papers were buried deep within the searches and nearly inaccessible had the reviewer not handed me a list of recommended reading.
Back in Boston, I was caught up in my first draft when I met Daniel. On our second date, he told me the story of how he had crossed the border as a child and had grown up undocumented. He later admitted this was his signature sob story to toy with a girl’s emotions, and he thought it had failed on me because my reaction was a blank stare.
Inside, however, my heart was swelling with ripe feeling as I tried to keep myself from exclaiming at the serendipity of the situation. Still shaken from my summer swimming through the stories of migrants in Marseille, I wondered if I could manage this relationship now. Really, what was I supposed to do with yet another story of structural discrimination? I couldn’t “fix” things or “empower” anyone. But maybe I could fall in love.
It took four years and a pandemic to process what I lived and make it coherent. The result will always be imperfect and inadequate, but it’s now published nonetheless. My article Discrimination as A Barrier to Romani Women’s Health and Empowerment: A Qualitative Study is a call to envision anti-racist public health interventions that connect migrants with the resources they need to survive. It’s a call for collective and structural change. But most importantly, it’s a call to healing from the large-scale social trauma of a world that can be unjust, unfair, and unforgiving by creating a more equitable future.