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Women and Migration

Deborah Willis
Ellyn Toscano
Kalia Brooks Nelson

Part one. Imagining family and migration

4. Migrations

Kathy Engel

Texte intégral

Migrations (I)


  1. To move from one place to another, especially to leave one’s country and settle in another.
  2. To move from one region to another with the change in seasons, as many birds and some fishes.

Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary

1As I began writing this chapter I thought I would reflect on some of the work I have done for more than thirty-eight years with women living the multiple manifestations of war and occupation, inside the US and across other borders. These geographies include Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan. Mississippi, Alabama, New York City, Long Island, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and more.

2Women fleeing violence from inside and outside the home and the body, through overt and covert domestic and foreign policies — unmitigated systemic, intimate, structural trespass and violation.

3And the spectacular travels of women daring to move into their strongest skins and voices. Sometimes risking all.

4That is what I thought.


5But the story never really begins elsewhere, does it?


6Mine began in my pulsing young forehead, uneasy stomach and muscled legs, voice caught on the railroad shuttling back and forth between parents, loyalties, identities and locations.

7Even languages in a sense, although all loosely assumed to be a syntax and grammar called English. Big assumption. The many lives and deaths, words and scaffolding inherited from a monarchy that would exclude us all. Yiddish didn’t trickle down to me, sadly. The feel of it, yes.


8My migration did not include the journey through my mother’s tunnel, lifted out neatly by a surgeon, her infection inflamed by placenta previa.

9Began in the dark recesses of my German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Jewish American eyes. My great-grandparents’ journeys escaping the Pogrom.

10(I’ve been told we’re related to Houdini on my dad’s side. His parents grew up hungry near Delancey.)

11(I’ve been told my mother’s grandparents walked from New York City to New Haven upon disembarking from the ship and pinpointing Yale on a map, wanting ‘the best’ for their kids in a new world.)


I always walked.

With my dad after dinner as a child.
On the Hudson’s rough-planked piers. Pine needle paths in
We walked and walked. We talked.

I walked with my mom and my sisters as a young woman.
On the beach and small roads near potato and corn fields, with strollers and big hair, sometimes falling over laughing. Sometimes hiding the distances between us.

I sat on a horse who walked.
I walked barefoot.
Now I walk and jog with my daughters who are women.
The tender, knotted mother/daughter migration of light and
I walk with my husband soon after dawn when we can. I walk with
some friends.

And I walk alone. Wherever I travel, I walk and run miles, battle my fear of getting lost, inhale the freedom of anonymity, the discovery of each corner, signpost, abandoned building, stray dog and riverbend. Sometimes I tie a scarf on a mailbox or fencepost to mark where I began.


12Beginning at the age of eight I took a three-hour train ride every other weekend from the east end of Long Island to New York City to visit my father. He often met me at Jamaica Station, where we had to change trains. Sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, heading back, he would run along the platform waving to me as the train revved slowly then faster towards Babylon and east.

13I shrank into my seat as my father disappeared.

14When I got back to our home by the sea I couldn’t talk to my mother. I didn’t yet have the tools to stitch myself back together. I did speak to the cows and horses.

15Language became my stitching, poetry my train tracks, the sea and animals my solace.

16Later, community building and justice seeking became the ground on which I stood and the river between.

17After decades I came to acknowledge the ways in which my own heart experienced a kind of migration, how a craving for wholeness directed my art and activism both, and how separation seeded itself within me as I internalized otherness in my family of origin and where I lived.

18The only Jewish kid in my elementary school. The dark one with blonde sisters and mother. The depressed and angry one as they seemed cheery and quick. I leaned towards my father. I loved to visit his mother who as a child saved a penny a week for piano lessons at the Henry Street Settlement House in lower Manhattan, and then gave me ‘piano lessons’that mostly consisted of her husky-voiced stories and chicken sandwiches on otherwise looked-down-upon white bread.

  • 1 Excerpt from Coffee, originally published in 5 AM #33 © Kathy Engel. Reprinted with permission of (...)

excerpt from Coffee1

…My grandmother, Henrietta,
savored hers for hours,
porcelain cup and saucer,
large hands sifting
and folding her
famous buttery
plum cake — Henry
Street to 63rd, granules
of her transplanted
voice, like sugar, or
Yiddish. Like loss…


19When I met the Black men and women who worked with my stepfather, a white farmer, heard their stories, saw where they lived, having come up from the south to eastern Long Island to pick potatoes, I learned what I would later understand as the way systemic racism forced migration for employment, forced the separation of families, forced people to leave home to travel for a still unsatisfactory paycheck in an equally racist place.


20As a young adult I began a life of work in art and social justice, generally focusing on projects with women. I only traveled to work with women in places affected by US policies and in response to invitation. When I went to Nicaragua the first time, during war, invited by the Sandinistas, with poets June Jordan and Sara Miles, and my partner, visual artist Jonathan Snow, I felt oddly at home. In some strange way more at home, or perhaps more aligned, than where I lived. But I knew I would return to the comfort of my home after each visit. To different fields of bones.


21In 1991, during that US invasion of Iraq, in a shelter in the South Bronx, women fleeing violence in the home, living in the violation of homelessness, welcomed their sisters from Turkey, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, who had been uprooted, in daily danger, living with war and under occupation. In an exchange curated by the organization MADRE, which I founded with a group of women in 1983, the women shared stories, formed a temporary border-crossing circle inside a cement building in an enormous anonymous city, a migratory pause.


22In occupied Palestine where water had been dug up and stolen by the Israeli military, women stenciled ‘No Place like Home’ on fabric. Some had left, finding themselves in exile elsewhere. For those who remained, each day flared with sirens, sweeps, bulldozers, wire, walls. Language stolen, school stolen, identity stolen, home stolen. Interrogation, arrest.

  • 2 Breasts and Interrogation originally published in Vandal, Volume Number 1. Reprinted with permissio (...)

Breasts and Interrogation2

Even you, breasts that milk no more,
even if gush and cluck could come, the drops
would sour and curdle as I recall
the zattar-haired mother from Lyd, ice packs
pressed on tender spouts to make her crack,
recording of a child’s call shot
through the crusted wall into her prison cell.


23During the period of Haitian President Jean Bertrande Aristide’s exile in Washington, D.C., HIV-positive Haitian women were held in Guantanamo. Others who fled the dictatorial, US-supported regime were often still terrorized after relocating to Brooklyn, New Jersey or elsewhere.

24No hour was non-migratory. No safety found its way between eye, throat, belly, foot. No stillness.

  • 3 An Arm for Haiti reprinted from ‘Ruth’s Skirts’ IKON, New York (2007). © Kathy Engel.

An Arm For Haiti3

from just beyond the elbow
an arm one human arm
one female arm
imagine the fingers
imagine their work
the detail of their daily travel
imagine the palm
soft imprint
the cushion
telltale lines
leading somewhere
imagine the wrist
did it wear a watch
how did the bones fit
so delicate

she could not bury her arm
she could not nurse her back
and neck
she could not say goodbye
when she was left to die

a woman in her home
she lifts her arm to protect her face
she lifts her arm in the air

(For Alerte Belance, 1992)


25In Mississippi and Louisiana with the Young People’s Project, after Hurricane Katrina, from South Africa during apartheid, or around the corner from my home on Narrow Lane East where those who’ve moved from Central and South America seeking subsistence, often leaving families behind, daily face deportation — I’ve always experienced women in motion, battling forced separation, the occupation of body, voice, land; designing sovereignty, planting seeds, threading, imagining, building.


So far I’ve had the choice to walk out.
Walk on my road again.
Walk home.
My migration, the stirring within. The fire.

I’ve had the good fortune to walk by choice.

(forced) migrations… (II) many birds and some fishes…

a body doesn’t separate
from itself
or from its needs knuckle from finger

wet infant mouth from wilted breast
organ doesn’t choose to pull
apart from muscle

we dream ourselves
alive — then name
honeysuckle, wire,

cockroach, nest
skyrocket of want

murder of crow, pride of lion
ascension of lark
are you home [yet]? Or, more honestly,
am I?

inventory of stone and wind reveals

each footprint leaves
her trace — shale, dirt, sand
shin to fin, wing —

lure of return, terror of flight:
danger of recognition:

birds fishes many

the body does or doesn’t
become home


1 Excerpt from Coffee, originally published in 5 AM #33 © Kathy Engel. Reprinted with permission of the author.

2 Breasts and Interrogation originally published in Vandal, Volume Number 1. Reprinted with permission of the author. © Kathy Engel. Lyd is a Palestinian village inside Israel.

3 An Arm for Haiti reprinted from ‘Ruth’s Skirts’ IKON, New York (2007). © Kathy Engel.


Associate Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Art & Public Policy, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Between 1980 and 2008, she co-founded and worked as an organizer, director, cultural worker, producer, communications and strategic consultant for numerous social justice projects and organizations, locally, nationally, and internationally. Her poems and essays have appeared widely in journals and anthologies. Books include Ruth’s Skirts (2007); The Kitchen, accompanying the art of German Perez (2011), and Banish the Tentative (1987). She co-edited We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon with Kamal Boullata (2007). She is co-producer of the videos talking nicaragua (1983), and On The Cusp (2008). For more information, visit


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