By Robert Monks
Munjed Al Muderis, a bright young man, was determined to become a surgeon even in war-torn Iraq. When he was accepted into the surgical training program at the General Hospital in Baghdad in 1998, it was like “a dream come true”. However, after one “horrific” day at work, he had to escape Iraq.
One morning in late 1999, a squad of military police with three busloads of deserters arrived at the hospital. The police ordered hospital staff to surgically remove the top half of the deserters’ ears. The most senior doctor in the operating theatre refused their instructions so they took him out to the car park and shot him dead.
Munjed made a snap decision to escape. The other two options were bleak: either he agree to perform the surgical atrocity and feel guilty for the rest of his life, or refuse and die. He ended up hiding in the women’s toilets for five hours. Afterwards he went into hiding at a friend’s place.
His family connections and his mother’s support were crucial in his escape. He managed to get a fake passport and he took a bus across the border to Jordan undetected. His mother met him at the Baghdad bus station just before he left. She was crying and it wasn’t easy for him either.
He flew from Jordan to Jakarta, Indonesia. It was here that he and 164 other refugees boarded a small wooden boat with a six cylinder engine headed for Australia. It was, he says, “a horror journey”. They arrived at Christmas Island wet, hungry and exhausted, on the 8 November, 1999. Later he spent 10 months at the notorious Curtin Detention Centre in the northwest desert of Western Australia.
Munjed is now an established surgeon in Australia and a leading specialist in osseo-integration surgery. He has written a compelling book, Walking Free, about his remarkable journey. He is slim and neatly dressed with alert eyes and a kind smile. He conveys a sense of purpose, tenacity and quiet focus.
He says his parents were major mentors. His father, Abdul Razak, was a judge from a prestigious family (he died before Munjed left Iraq) and his mother, Kamila, came from a large poor family.
”My father was very literate and very educated,” Munjed says. He questioned conventional wisdom such as superstitions surrounding the eating of pork. ”He always questioned things and I learnt from him to question things.
“What I learnt from my father is that you try and do your best and at the same time, if you see something is wrong, you need to correct it by the right means. Sometimes that doesn’t always work living in an autocratic society,” he says.
“My mother was completely different to my father. My father was always the figure of ideology and my mother was a practical person. She handled stuff that my father wouldn’t come close to because he couldn’t deal with business while my mother was very good at it. Bargaining and doing business, she was the one who maintained our earnings.”
There was also his uncle, a sculptor and a designer. “He was well known and very respected in the art world and he mentored me in a completely different way. He kind me the beauty of life and how to admire everything and kind of painted life as a very nice picture basically.”
Baghdad, when Munjed was growing up, seemed to be a cosmopolitan and modern city. “If you look, for example, at my mum: in the fifties, she used to drive her convertible MG down the street. She never wore a burqa, she never wore a head cover and she always lived a very free life.”
Munjed lived through the Iraq Iran war and the multiple bombings after the liberation of Kuwait. He says there was a strong connection between “living through the war, watching people lose their limbs and seeing a lot of disasters” and his decision to study medicine. As a surgeon in Australia, with his own team, he operated on a young British soldier who had “his legs blown away above the knee” in Afghanistan. The soldier was fitted with two robotic legs and he now can walk.
Although he is calm and polite answering questions about his life, Munjed shows indignation when discussing the treatment of asylum seekers and what he had witnessed at Curtin Detention Centre.
“The people who are on the boats are running away from terror,” he says. He describes conditions at Curtin as “extremely harsh.”
He had no legal representation until his mother was contacted by other detainees’ solicitors. “My mum managed to hire a solicitor for me who was in Sydney.” The solicitor provided ongoing support. Meanwhile, Munjed acted as an interpreter for detainees. Despite this, he spent 40 days in solitary confinement where he kept studying his book, Last’s Anatomy. He was finally released with a visa and dumped by the roadside to catch a bus in late August, 2001.
He says his belief that there is always a positive side to things kept him going. Munjed says he always worried about his mother who had “a rough time” from the authorities after he left. “I sponsored her to come to Australia, and I was very happy to do that. She ended up living here.”
Munjed Al Muderis, together with Abdi Aden and Tommy Wieringa, spoke about new beginnings and the importance of hope at ‘ Stories of Migration and Hope’, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.