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Refugee doctor’s story of courage and persistence

13 October 20151 comment

Associate Professor Munjed Al Muderis’ life changed the day he was ordered by soldiers to surgically remove the ears of Iraqi defectors in Baghdad after his chief surgeon was shot for refusing.

Fleeing to Australia as a refugee, Munjed spent months at Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia waiting to be processed; a time he says was one of the lowest points in what he calls the wheel of life. Munjed recounts his journey from asylum seeker to world-leading osseointegration expert in his heartbreaking and inspiring memoir, Walking Free.

From his time as a boy in Iraq, to professional strides in Australia, Munjed’s life has been one of hardship, courage and strength.

Munjed was born in 1972 to an agnostic aristocratic family in Baghdad, but experienced the turmoil of his country from a young age when the war with Iran broke out in 1980.

As an 8 year old in 1981 he was nearly killed by machine gun fire from an Iranian fighter plane in Baghdad.

Though the war changed the very way of life in Baghdad, Munjed refused to give up on his dream of becoming a surgeon.

During his studies at medical school, he met his first wife and was married by the time he was 23.

However, after irreconcilable differences in religious beliefs and values, the couple were divorced within a year.

Conflict surrounded Munjed’s life as the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein tore apart Iraq.

“Unless you’ve lived under a brutal dictatorship in a country whose economy has virtually collapsed, it would be hard to imagine what life was like in Iraq in the late 1990s. Without question, it was a terrible place to live in those years,” wrote Munjed in his memoir.

“…every Iraqi knew that you didn’t challenge the regime-or even encourage the impression that you might question it. Blind obedience was required and the consequences of not following the Saddam line were awful,” he wrote

After studying medicine at Baghdad University, Munjed began his first year residency in 1999 and encountered those consequences first hand.

In Iraq military service was compulsory, and Saddam issued an order that all deserters would be punished with disfigurement.

One morning, Saddam’s henchmen rounded up army deserters and brought them to the hospital where Munjed worked, in order to get the doctors to disfigure the deserters by surgically removing the tops of their ears.

The most senior doctor refused as he had sworn an oath to do no intentional harm to his patients. As a result he was promptly marched to the carpark, briefly interrogated and shot in front of medical staff including Munjed.

Munjed, forced with no other options besides death or compliance, hid in the women’s toilet cubicle for hours and planned his escape from Iraq.

“I didn’t know how I could keep one step ahead of the Iraqi authorities, but I did know that if they caught me, I would face intense – and potentially brutal – interrogation before the ultimate sanction of death,”  Munjed wrote.

With the help of friends, Munjed managed to flee to Jordan before making his way to Indonesia via Abu Dhabi and Malaysia.

From Java he crammed onto a boat with 150 other asylum seekers bound for Christmas Island, all with hopes of starting new lives for themselves.

During the difficult and dangerous journey Munjed used his medical skills to treat fellow passengers, including several pregnant women that were suffering from severe sea sickness.

After his long journey to escape persecution, he was incarcerated in detention, locked in solitary confinement and was known only by a number.

Finally, after 10 months Munjed was freed after being recognised as a refugee, and began another long journey to obtain his Australian medical qualifications.

Now, after working from Canberra to Mildura and studying extensively, Munjed is an orthopaedic robotic limb surgeon and a clinical lecturer at Macquarie University and The Australian School of Advanced Medicine.

World-leading osseointegration surgeon, Munjed Al Muderis. Image courtesy of Amputee Implant Sevices

World-leading osseointegration surgeon, Munjed Al Muderis. Image courtesy of Amputee Implant Sevices

He is one of the world’s leading osseointegration surgeons, fulfilling his dream of transforming the lives of amputees through cutting-edge technology that allows them to walk again.

Early last year Munjed watched one of his patients, 24 year old British soldier Rifleman Michael Swain, walk towards Queen Elizabeth II to receive his MBE using perfectly functioning artificial robotic legs.

“It was a particularly poignant moment for me, because I knew the heartbreak and courage that had brought him to this ceremony,” wrote Munjed.

After having his legs blown off by a makeshift bomb while serving in Afghanistan, Michael was fitted with traditional socket prostheses that caused so many difficulties that he became mostly restricted to a wheelchair.

It wasn’t until after extensive research on the internet that Michael found Munjed and begun his journey to walking like he once had.

“I like what I do because it’s changing people’s lives. It integrates them back into society by bringing amputees as close as possible back to normality,” Munjed told iMPACT in between seeing patients at his surgery.

Without Munjed’s persistence and courage he may have never made it to Australia and been given the opportunity to provide his patients with a new lease on life.

Munjed, who now lives in Sydney with his wife Irina, and their daughter Sophia, said he decided to write his memoir because it’s a story that’s worth telling.

“I made it through my experiences because I have a very strong will and am a positive person. Many people can’t make it through because they don’t have the education and positivity that I have,” said Munjed.

The doctor believes the refugee story is one often told for refugees, rather than by them.

“The media in Australia isn’t the most fair as it involves a lot of misinformation and bias. Walking Free was created in order to tell the story from the perspective of someone who has actually been through it.”

“Atrocities have been and are still committed in the Middle East due to lack of education, fanaticism, religion and power hungry people. It’s a very complex situation. The more we educate people about what’s going on, then change will happen from the grassroots,” said Munjed.

Walking Free is a part of that education as it provides a small, accessible window to the public about the past, present and possible future of the Middle East and the treatment of refugees in Australia.

“Australian’s need to know about the struggles that people face in the Middle East, as well as what happens once they come here.”

“I think the tide of the opinion of the Australian public is changing. They are realising that refugees are humans and that they are suffering,” said Munjed.

“Australians are good people by nature and by understanding what has happened in the past we can fix what’s happening in the Middle East.”


Ruby Brown
AMES Australia Staff Writer