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The surgeon who fled Saddam’s regime

Associate Professor Munjed Al Muderis giving his talk after formal dinner

Associate Professor Munjed Al Muderis: the surgeon who fled Saddam’s regime on a wooden boat
On Wednesday 2 May 2018, Warrane welcomed Associate Professor Munjed Al Muderis as the formal dinner guest. Munjed graduated from Baghdad College High School (The American Jesuit) in 1991 and studied medicine at Baghdad University before fleeing the country. These days, he specialises in hip, knee, trauma and osseointegration surgery, and is a clinical lecturer at Macquarie University and The Australian School Of Advanced Medicine.

But, as the boys discovered, Munjed is anything but your run-of-the-mill orthopaedic surgeon – he fled the reign of Saddam Hussein on a wooden boat and proceeded to make a success of himself in Australia. He told the boys about his story as well as the lessons he learnt along the way.

A bit of background 
Munjed knew that he wanted to go into medicine to do reconstructive surgery from the age of 12: when he was inspired after watching the movie The Terminator. While he admits that he lives a very comfortable life now, one where he has even met the Queen and been visited by Prince Harry, it certainly didn’t start like that.

“It started in Iraq…where all you hear about is war and disasters and bad things,” Munjed told the boys. “Funny enough, Iraq was not like that. Bagdad was a very cosmopolitan city; it was a very modern city… Yes, Saddam Hussein was a dictator and ruled the country with an iron fist but if you minded your own business you were safe. And for the record I want to say… Saddam was the most fair person I’ve seen in my life; he didn’t discriminate against anyone, he just killed everyone.”

Growing up in Baghdad in a well-off family, Munjed lived a comfortable life and never wanted to leave Iraq. That was all challenged when he was a junior resident in surgery. “All of a sudden my life changed,” he said. “I was confronted with three busloads of army deserters escorted by republican guards and party members and they ordered us to stop elective lists and start mutilating these army deserters by cutting their ears off under anaesthetic. So the head of the department refused; he said this is against the Hippocratic Oath – do no harm – and they took him out to the carpark and pretty much shot him in the head. And they turned to us and said ‘Well now we’ve attracted your attention. Anyone share this guy’s view, come forward, otherwise proceed with our orders.’”

He continued: “So I faced the most challenging decision of my life: should I obey the commands and live with guilt for the rest of my life by violating every principle I grew up on? Should I refuse and end up with a bullet in my head, or should I run away? And I decided to run away.”

In an instant, he had gone from a wealthy young man to one with a bounty on his head. With the help of family he got to Jordan, which wasn’t safe, and then proceeded to the only place in the world that would give an Iraqi national a visa – Malaysia. Here, thanks to his education and being able to speak English, he met some guys who knew people smugglers, which kicked off a sequence of events which led to Australia. In fact, he only ended up on the boat to Australia since he was a medical student, with the role of looking after the heavily pregnant daughter of an imam (religious leader).

“If you asked me the question ‘Would I do it again in the same situation’? The answer would be yes, because there was no other choice.”

Lessons learnt
Once in Australia, Munjed spent some time at Christmas Island. Here, he feels that he learnt some important lessons about tolerance and acceptance, and about helping each other out. He tried to find opportunities wherever he could – such as reading a medical book over and over during time spent in isolation, which later helped him pass an exam with flying colours.

Once Munjed was finally granted refugee status, he spent all his money on making and printing a CV and sent it to every medical centre in Australia. He managed to get a job fairly quickly, climbed the ladder fast and got on a training program. He did recall a situation where his peers commented that they couldn’t believe Australian medicine had dropped standards so much as to accept refugees. However, as Munjed put it, “That was one of the major boosts of my life… where I made a promise to myself to prove that this refugee is worth it and can achieve what you [those peers] can’t achieve.”

“If I may say one thing to you all as a message to take home, it’s that we all come from different backgrounds. We all have different colours and we all have different faiths and different beliefs… Sometimes we get delusional and start fighting with each other based on our race or our beliefs or our colour… and these things none of us have chosen. I didn’t choose to be born in Iraq; I didn’t choose to look like this. So I think if we grow up and open our eyes, the world is a big place and it can take everybody. And if we treat each other the way we want to be treated, the world will be a much better place.”

Munjed left the boys with his three hopes for what he’d like to see achieved in his lifetime.

“The first one is that I can get robotic surgery available to people around the world who cannot afford it – people who need it the most… and I think I will be able to achieve that before I die, and I’m determined to get that,” he said.

Munjed continued: “The second hope is much more difficult and I hope that you people can help to achieve it – and that’s to get our government to grow up and have a little bit of wisdom in their brains, and achieve building a fast train from Brisbane to Melbourne. And the message behind that is if you look at the short-sightedness of our government, all that they care about is getting to be elected, and we don’t have proper long-term plans for our children. And Australia is the only nation that is developed that doesn’t have fast-train technology and that’s because of the way we run our politics.”

“My third hope,” he said, “which is really very difficult to be achieved, and that’s to have tolerance among each other, and acceptance… Believe me, there is plenty of room for all of us. And if we work with each other we can build this nation and secure the future for our children and their children.”

(Photographs from the evening are available here)

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