Munjed Al Muderis does robotic surgery: he puts robots in people who have lost their arms and legs so they can move again.
He was born in Baghdad, a city a lot of us read and hear gloomy things about. “Baghdad was not like that, it was like Sydney,” he says. Munjed says that as a child, he was a spoiled brat with a silver spoon in his mouth. At the age of 12, in 1984, he watched The Terminator and had a dream to bring humans and machines together. He decided to do medicine, graduated from medical school, and never thought of leaving Baghdad.
Until the day that three busloads of army deserters were brought to the hospital where he worked as a surgeon. Munjed was ordered, along with the other surgeons, to cut off part of their ears. Citing his allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath, the Head Surgeon refused to do this – he was shot in the head in front of everyone as an example.
That moment, Munjed had to make a difficult decision – do something he couldn’t agree with, or end up with a bullet in his head like his boss. He hid in the female toilets for five hours. It felt like five years.
After that, he had to flee via Jordan, which wasn’t safe. The only place to go from there was Malaysia. The wheel of fortune had spun, with him going from the top to the bottom.
In Malaysia, he met two guys who claimed to be tourists. He agreed to help them with English translation, and in exchange, they took him to a people smuggler.
The man he met, who looked like Steve Irwin, was actually an Iraqi Kurd. He asked for a large sum of money and his passport. Munjed asked him how he could trust him. The guy was offended: “How dare you question me, I’m a respectable people smuggler.”
True to his word, he got him to Jakarta airport, and gave him advice on who to bribe to get through. He took a taxi to a place that looked like downtown Baghdad: outside a hotel, he met many Middle Eastern people, some who had been waiting for 8 months to get to a new place.
Munjed thought he might be stuck there for a long time, but luckily, he was asked to come on board a boat in order to take care of a mullah’s daughter who was pregnant, so the mullah, a religious leader, could concentrate on protecting the boat. The boat was heading to Australia.
The boat they loaded into was leaky, with 165 people crammed on board. Everyone was stripped of their money, jewellery, whatever they had. Packed like sardines, by the end of the journey everyone was laying on top of each other, covered in their body fluids. They were lucky – the boat before them had sunk.
When they reached Christmas Island, the officials took the boatful of people into a hall and gave them a clean change of clothes. They stayed there for five days. On the fourth day, he witnessed the biggest kindness of his life. An Australian captain offered him a satellite phone and let him call his family to say that he was alive.
The captain told him that when they got to Australia it would be a different story.
In Curtin Detention Centre, he was given a number, referred to only as his number, shoved, spat at, and treated like an animal. Munjed, being an inquisitive person, could not help becoming a nuisance for the detention centre and the Department of Immigration. He had a phone and laptop snuck into his cell and he began documenting atrocities.
The officials did not like this, and eventually he was put into solitary confinement, with almost nothing around him, not even bedsheets, in case he hung himself. Munjed was happy because he had his books. Having a long time to study these medical books allowed him to pass his tests on his first attempt after his release.
He managed to get in touch with his family, who hired a lawyer who would help him to finally be released. On the day of his release, the immigration officer told him that the the group he was released with had been flown to Brisbane, but because Munjed spoke English, he could just go outside and catch the bus. The officer was punishing him, but as a result, Munjed – the incredible optimist – said that he had the wonderful opportunity to travel all over Australia by bus.
“I decided to work the day I was released,” he said. He went to a hospital in Perth and asked for a job, but was told to go and pick fruit for a while and study. Munjed decided Perth wasn’t for him. He had $3000 and a plan to get a job. He bought a computer and submitted his resume to every medical centre around the country. It took him eight weeks from his release to get hired. “So I do apologise for spending your taxpayer money for those two months,” he jokes.
“Then I climbed the ladder, and here I am in front of you today.”
Associate Professor Munjed Al Muderis, world leading osseointegration surgeon and Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame Australia presented this at Happiness & Its Causes 2016.