This article features Margot Mai who received a senior thesis grant from CES in 2017 and was awarded a Hoopes Prize for her research. This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates published for the Harvard Gazette's Commencement issue. (Photo: Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer)
The split-second pause Margot Mai ’18 took before deciding to let her cellphone go to voicemail wasn’t just the usual. The message would reveal the fate of her caller, “Kaitlyn,” a 24-year-old Nigerian woman seeking asylum in France.
Instead of taking the call in the public gallery at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES), she waited to share that moment privately.
“Waiting” Mai said, is a principle concept in her work as an “anthropologist caregiver,” a term that carries weight.
Mai, 22, spent last summer in Marseille, working with a French nongovernmental organization (NGO) that aims to rehabilitate Nigerian sex workers — undocumented women who migrate to Europe through a dangerous infrastructure in search of a better life. Mai’s mission is to help provide that opportunity for women like Kaitlyn.
“There is a moral necessity for care, and it’s important to me that health and well-being — as basic rights — are accessible. I’d like to be part of making this available to people who don’t have it, in a way that’s sensitive and consensual,” Mai said.
It is the imposition of frameworks in medicine and developmental programs, some of which hobble the ability to seek better health, that drove the student anthropologist to offer assistance to the young migrants.
“Rather than perhaps impose [on them] the mentality that you’re a trafficked victim who needs to be saved from the streets, [it instead] is to understand that you are a person who found international mobility through this work, and right now you’re dependent on it. So how can we address your needs overall,” Mai said. “It’s a complex situation, focusing on an urgent need for this specific, almost displaced population.”