On March 14, when President Bush was seeking international support for an invasion of Iraq, he summoned Iraqi exile Katrin Michael to a meeting in the Oval Office, where she recounted her horrific story of being gassed by Saddam Hussein's troops in 1987.
That day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher both used the meeting as an opportunity to issue statements attacking Hussein for his use of chemical weapons. And Michael told her story on National Public Radio and ABC-TV.
A week later -- on March 21, the day after the war began -- Michael received a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service demanding that she report to a deportation officer.
"I was scared, I got crazy," says Michael, 53, who works as a translator for the Iraq Foundation in Washington. "I asked the deportation officer, 'You're going to deport me in this war situation?' And he said, 'No, you should be detained.' I said, 'I met President Bush last week and now I'll be in jail in America?' "
This morning, Michael is scheduled to meet with her deportation officer. "I'm going to take a picture of me with President Bush and show it to him," she says.
The White House declines to discuss Michael or the deportation action against her. A White House press officer referred inquiries to the National Security Council, which referred inquiries to the State Department, which referred inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security, where Greg Gagne, spokesman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, uttered this on-the-record comment:
"We don't discuss these things."
Michael's deportation problem is just the latest crisis in a life filled with turmoil and horror. She was born in 1950 in northern Iraq, a member of the Assyrian Christian minority in that predominantly Muslim nation. During her childhood, she says, her father, an oil company auditor, was jailed several times for his political activities in support of equal rights for Christians. At 14 she, too, was briefly jailed, she says, accused of smuggling food and information to her father, who was in hiding.
In the early '70s she studied geology at Mosul University, where she acquired a reputation as an outspoken feminist.
"She was very active and very vocal," recalls Audisho Khoshaba, a Chicago doctor who met Michael when they were both students at Mosul. "She was harassed by the Baath regime. They tried to intimidate her."
In 1976, Michael won a scholarship to study geology and petroleum engineering in Azerbaijan, then part of the Soviet Union. By the time she returned to Iraq with a PhD in geology in 1982, Hussein had seized power, her father had died after another brutal stint in prison, and two of her brothers had joined the Peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrillas fighting Hussein's army. She, too, joined the Peshmerga, she says, organizing support among women in Kurdistan.
Sitting in her small Arlington apartment, she pulls out a photo album filled with snapshots from her guerrilla days. In one picture, she stands on a rocky mountainside, holding a rifle. In another, she's smiling broadly, cuddling a friend's son, a little boy named Sim-Sim, who was, she says, later injured in a gas attack by the Iraqi army.
She turns the page to a photo of guerrillas and points to a smiling young woman. "This is me," she says. She points to another guerrilla. "This is a friend of mine. He was killed."
She flips to another page, this one a photo of people sitting in a stone house. "This is me," she says. "This is my friend. Her brother was killed in a fight. We were having a ceremony for him, a funeral."
When she closes the album, her eyes are glossed with tears. "Through all my travels, I lost everything else, but I kept these photos," she says. "I feel this is my wealth."
All through the 1980s, while Iraq was at war with Iran, the Peshmerga guerrillas fought Hussein's army in the rugged mountains of Kurdistan. On June 5, 1987, the Iraqi army, which had already used poison gas against Iranian troops, dropped bombs containing mustard and cyanide gas on Kurdish guerrillas in the Zewa valley. Michael was there.
"Every day they were bombing us," she says. "This was not something strange. This was for us a usual day. But it was the first time they used chemical weapons."
She takes out a piece of paper and draws a rough map -- squiggly lines for two rows of mountains, a couple of straight lines for the stream that ran through the valley in between.
"Here is the stream and here are the Peshmerga sites and here are the civilian villages," she says. "It was a valley, so the poison gas didn't blow away. It stayed in the valley."
The bombs fell about 7:30 that night. At first, the guerrillas didn't know the bombs contained poison gas. There was an odd smell -- like rotten garlic, she says -- but they figured it was sulfur from the explosions. Then one guerrilla, her friend Rebar Ajeel, said he felt ill.
"He said, 'I took a lot of the sulfur,' and he vomited everything from his stomach and I took him some water and we put him on a blanket."
She stops, takes a deep breath, continues. "We didn't know it was chemical weapons. We just give him some water."
It was a summer night and the guerrillas slept outdoors on a terrace, she says, but she decided to sleep inside. She doesn't know why she did, but she figures now that it might have saved her life.
At 2 in the morning, she was awakened by someone screaming, "Get up!" She stumbled outside to find hundreds of people -- guerrillas and civilians -- gathered around a bonfire. By then, they realized they'd been gassed and they hoped the smoke rising from the fire would draw the gas up and away.
But it didn't work. All around her people were vomiting, their stomachs twisting in pain, their eyes swollen shut, their skin covered with a rash. Her own eyes swelled, too, until she could barely see.
"You feel like they're infected," she says. "They are swollen and red and it really hurts."
They fled into the mountains, where they hoped the air would be cleaner. Stumbling, sick and nearly blind, the guerrillas and villagers climbed, with those who could still see leading those who'd gone blind. Her friend Rebar Ajeel, the first person to feel the symptoms, was carried on a mule.
By the time they reached the top, Michael was blind. For three days she couldn't see, she says, then her vision returned. She was lucky. Some people stayed blind for a month. Two people died -- one of them Ajeel. "The poor man was 28 years old," she says.
Michael says she still suffers aftereffects from the gassing: trembling in her hands, damaged lungs that cause her to wake up gasping for air and -- worst of all, she says -- nightmares. "I can't get rid of the pictures I have in my head."
That attack was merely an early, crude experiment. Over the next year, the Iraqi army learned to make its gas attacks more lethal. On March 16, 1988, Iraqi troops gassed the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing 5,000 civilians and injuring 10,000, according to State Department figures.
The attacks sent thousands of Kurds fleeing to Turkey. Michael, then 38, joined the exodus and ended up in a Turkish refugee camp. It was a terrible place, she says, so she sneaked into Syria, where she was briefly jailed for entering the country illegally. After being released, she arranged for a job teaching geology in Algeria, where, she says, she was harassed by Muslim fundamentalists who frowned on Christian women teaching college. In 1991, she fled to Bulgaria, then later to Russia, then Romania, then Greece, where she found work as a translator for three years.
In December 1997, at 47, she came to the United States, hoping to find a translator and a publisher for her memoirs, which she'd written in Arabic while in Greece. Living with cousins in Southern California, she applied for asylum in 1998, but her application was denied. She filed an appeal.
While her appeal was pending, she moved to Washington in 2000 and found a job at the Iraq Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to bringing democracy to Iraq. She works translating Iraqi government documents captured by Kurdish rebels in 1991.
Last year, as America debated the prospect of war in Iraq, Michael wrote an op-ed essay that was printed in several newspapers. "As an Iraqi woman who wages peace and has fought in war, I am compelled to support a U.S.-led action to remove Saddam Hussein," she wrote. "After 26 years of resistance against Saddam, I have come to the conclusion that only forces from outside Iraq can bring an end to the nightmare of his rule."
In March, Michael and several other Iraqi refugees met with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney. Then, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Halabja attack, they were summoned to meet Bush.
That night she called her brother Basil, who lives in Toronto with her mother. "When I walked into the Oval Office," she remembers telling him, "it was like a dream."
The rude awakening came a week later, when she received the letter demanding that she report to a "deportation officer." Stunned, she called the officer and learned that her asylum appeal had been rejected by the Board of Immigration Appeals in December.
She contacted Riva Khoshaba, a Washington lawyer who is the daughter of her old Mosul University friend Audisho Khoshaba.
"She was pretty scared," says Riva Khoshaba, who agreed to take her case without charge. "This is a pretty scary thing for someone who has been a refugee for 20 years."
Khoshaba hopes to reopen Michael's case, and she has enlisted the aid of veteran Chicago immigration attorney Robert De Kelaita.
"This woman should not be deported or detained," De Kelaita says. "This could be very embarrassing for the Bush administration. It could spark an interesting debate in the Arab world over how Iraqis are treated in the U.S. and what democracy will be like in Iraq."
Michael admits that she's a little scared about the prospect of deportation. She'd like to return to Iraq eventually, she says, but she worries about her safety there now.
"Where should I go?" she asks. "Should I travel to Iraq? I give you a question: Where should I go?"