AL Andrew Leigh
MA Munjed Al Muderis
MA So I had to face the most challenging decision in my life, should I obey the commands and live with guilt for the rest of my life by violating every single principle I was brought up on, should I refuse and end up with a bullet in my head, or should I escape?
AL My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love.
We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now sit back and enjoy the conversation.
Munjed Al Muderis is one of Australia’s most successful refugees, very much in the vein of an Anh Do or a Frank Lowy. He is somebody who has come to Australia from Iraq, leading an extraordinary life both before he came, on the way, and since he’s arrived. He’s a pioneer in the technique of osseointegration, which involves directly grafting limb implants onto humans.
His story starts in Iraq, born in the same year as me, 1972, but to much more distinguished lineage. Let’s start, Munjed, with your upbringing. You’re descended directly from the Prophet Muhammad, is that right?
MA That’s right. Thank you very much for having me here on your podcast. My family are direct-line descendants. The Prophet Muhammad is my grand-grand-grandfather, basically. And in the western, mainly, in different monarchies around Europe, usually blue bloodline goes with royalty and nobility. In the Arab world and, definitely, in the Islamic world, people who have blue bloodline are the ones who are descended from the Prophet Muhammad.
AL So your grandfather was, as you described it, the Iraqi equivalent of the Pope, and then your father was expected to take over that role. What happened next?
MA So my grandfather was the head of the Muslim church, if you would call it that way. And, usually, one of the sons is dedicated to study religion. And they go through vigorous education, and they study not just Islam, they study Christianity, Judaism and other philosophies, like Buddhism, Hinduism and others.
And my father went and did his due diligence and finished his studies, but then he decided that it’s not a job for him. So, especially, his views about religion, in particular, were very different to the way it’s methodically taught.
And he was an outsider, and he believed that all religions are equal and they have the same value, and if you are content with your own belief and try to do whatever is best for yourself and your family and the community, that’s enough. And obviously that was not enough for him to lead the Muslim community, so he decided to take a different path, and that’s the path of justice and law.
And then he climbed the ladder in the judicial system in Iraq, and then he ended up being a Supreme Court judge. And then he became the Chief Justice, and until the moment where Saddam Hussein came to power. And due to my family’s links with the Iraqi monarchy, basically, he was forced to retire.
AL You lived a relatively well-off childhood, overseas holidays and an opportunity to engage in the great Iraqi intellectual life. Tell us about the role that playing chess at the club played for your father.
MA My father was very obsessed with chess, and it was not just a hobby. He was possessed by chess, unfortunately, and he took it to the extreme. And he was the Iraqi champion in chess. He wrote a couple of books in chess. And our driver used to take him to the club, and he would teach a lot of people and play with different prominent figures in chess around the region. And then we would pick him up late at night. And he spent most of his retired life in that area.
However, this club is usually attended by the intellectual people from the Iraqi society. And you would go there, and you see a lot of prominent writers, politicians and judges and other people who are influential in the society, from the old era, basically. And it was very interesting, because a lot of the time he would take me with him.
And I remember one of his very close friends used to be called Ali Wardi. And this particular person, he was a philosopher, and he was very, very opinionated about the way Islam is conducted. And I was so surprised that he was let to write in society, because his views were very on the verge of being blasphemy. So I learnt a lot from attending these kinds of clubs, and it opened my eyes very early in the days about politics, about religion, about humanity and about discrimination, etcetera.
AL You studied medicine. You wanted to study at New York University but ended up studying in Basra. What was that like?
MA So I managed to go to school comfortably. I was living in a bubble, basically. I was completely insulated from what’s going on in Iraq. And if you mind your own business, you can live your life normally in Iraq under Saddam’s regime. And for the record, I have to say that we were not harassed by the Government despite of my family connection with the old regime. So I went to Baghdad Grammar, Baghdad Jesuit School, and it’s the same school that Saddam’s sons went to, and a lot of ministers…
AL They would’ve been lovely schoolmates, terrific guys to have around.
MA Well, I wouldn’t say that. We wouldn’t mix with them because they had their own group and their own people that they mixed with. And, unfortunately, they were a different kind of people, and it’s very clear that they were people who are newcomers and from different kind of social standard and background. And they were very dangerous as well. So we tried to avoid them like a plague.
But then my hopes were to go to study medicine in New York University, and I paid the tuition, everything was planned. However, all of a sudden, on the 2nd August 1990, Saddam was stupid enough to invade Kuwait. And as a result of that, the Iraqi border was shut. There was a ban on travel.
And all my hopes disappeared, basically, and I had to find a university in Iraq. And the only place that would take me was Basra University, which is, ironically, the closest city to the warzone. So I had to go there. And I witnessed the war first-hand, basically.
AL How did you witness the war first-hand?
MA So Basra was the border town or border city with Kuwait. And we started school normally. And you could see the troops moving toward the city of Kuwait, and Basra was the first city to be hit by the Coalition, basically.
I remember vividly that, I think it was on the 17th January, when the airstrikes started, we were not told anything. And I had a Chemistry exam the next day, it was midyear exams. And life was normal, but when you turned on the radio and you listened to the BBC, and it tells you that the countdown is almost done, and the clock is ticking for the beginning of the air-raids… And I remember that at 2 PM or so, you could hear the roar of the B-52s flying over, and then the bombing started.
And we went to a rooftop of one of the high-rises in Basra City, and you can see the whole city lit on fire, the surroundings, all the airfields, all the oil refineries and the telecommunication centres. So I drove early in the morning, around 6 AM, to go to the hospital and see what’s going on. And I was a first-year medical student, don’t even know how to stitch a wound.
And I noticed that the demographic and the structure of the street has changed. And all of a sudden, I noticed that there were high-rises on both sides of the road had collapsed completely due to the bombing. And then when I got to the hospital, it was absolute chaos. There were people rushed to the hospital, brought by cars, pickup trucks, wheelbarrows, you name it.
And they evacuated the whole medical section and they created emergency surgical facilities in the corridors, and emergency operating rooms in the medical school, etcetera. And anyone that can be of use was asked to assist, and anyone that can wear a white coat was asked to be involved.
AL What did you do?
MA I managed to take some shells out of a few injured people and put a few stitches in wounds and put pressure on some bleeding limbs. And it was very terrifying, and it was eye-opening for me to the real world and real deal about war and about all the disasters that comes with it.
AL And you then moved on to Baghdad where you finished your study and became a junior doctor and then experienced an episode in a hospital that was to change your life. Tell us about that.
MA So after I finished the first year and after the liberation of Kuwait, I managed to score high enough to be transferred to Baghdad University, and I finished my medical school in Baghdad. And life normalised again. And you get the odd bombing by the Coalition, and you get the odd…
Bill Clinton was in power then, and he bombed Baghdad several times on air-raids, but it was very trivial. There were fireworks, very similar to Sydney fireworks. The only difference, they were real planes shot by real missiles. And everything was fine as it can be in these kinds of circumstances.
I finished medical school. One day I was going to work in the theatre complex in Baghdad University Hospital. And the day seemed to be normal until the moment where we were confronted with large number of army deserters in handcuffs, escorted by Republican Guards and Baath Party members. There were three busloads of them or so.
AL And these were part of the call-up for anyone born in 1972…
AL Which is the year in which we’re both born as well?
MA So the reason I know that particularly, because I had to go and register for service. And because I was a doctor, I was exempted from participating in the military training. So people who failed to attend, they would be given amnesty for a month or so, and then after that, they would be captured if they found, and then they would be treated like traitors or army deserters.
And as a result of that, the rule of Saddam was to be punishing these people by maiming them, basically. And the orders were to mutilate these people by taking part of their ears off. And, ironically, he wanted them to have it done humanely, under general anaesthetics, which doesn’t make any sense. But that’s the way he thought back then, and that’s the way he conducted his business. He had this kind of ideology that he’s doing justice to people, which is very barbaric.
And so they were brought to the theatre complex. We were ordered to abandon the elective list and start performing the surgeries on them. The head of the department refused openly, and he said, this is against the Hippocratic Oath, do no harm, I’m not doing that. So they dragged him outside to the car park. In front of everybody, they put a bullet in his head. And then they turned to the rest of us, and they said, well, now we’ve attracted your attention, anyone share this man’s view, come forward, otherwise proceed with our orders.
So I had to face the most challenging decision in my life, should I obey the commands and live with guilt for the rest of my life by violating every single principle I was brought up on, should I refuse and end up with a bullet in my head, or should I escape? And I decided to run away.
I found a cubicle in the female toilets, and I managed to stay there for five hours. It felt like five years. And then after the surgeries were conducted and everybody finished, I sneaked out of the hospital. I couldn’t even go to my car in the car park. And I took a taxi to the outskirts of Baghdad.
And then with the help of a friend, I was taken to a farm to hide there for several days until my family and friends prepared a passport for me. And till now, I don’t know if that passport was legitimate or not. And they prepared a large sum of money, and they gave it to me. And they smuggled me through the borders with Jordan to Oman.
AL If you hadn’t been able to hide, do you think you would’ve been able to face death rather than performing those procedures? You must’ve thought about that in the years since.
MA The rule in Iraq is very simple. If you oppose Saddam, you face death. And the price of a human life back then in Iraq was the price of the bullet that shoots them and that takes their life away. And it was so easy. And I’ve witnessed on several occasions executions in Iraq.
My next-door neighbour, he was a father of two young children, a boy and a girl. He was an army deserter, and someone tipped the authorities about his hiding. And they found him, they dragged him outside in the street in his underwear, and they basically performed a public execution. And they forced his wife, his brothers and the rest of his family to witness his execution.
And they gave the family a bill of the price of the bullet, and the family had to pay for the bullet. I think it was the equivalent of 25 Iraqi dinars, which is like 5c or something. But it is an insult, and it’s a barbaric thing. And after the execution, they would bury the body, and they’re not allowed to have a funeral.
AL So you escaped across to Jordan. Where did your journey take you from there?
MA So Jordan was not safe back then. Jordan was the backyard of the Iraqi Intelligence Services in those days. And so the only place that would accept an Iraqi national with half-decent passport was Malaysia. Malaysia would give Iraqi nationals a 14-day visa to study English.
So I decided that I would take this journey, and I took the plane. And, coincidentally, in transit in Abu Dhabi I met two young men of Iraqi background. And you look at their hands, their hands were very rough, filled with cracks, and you can tell that they are manual labourers.
And I sat with them. They were very nervous. And they couldn’t speak a word of English. In Abu Dhabi Airport, if you don’t speak English or one of the subcontinent languages, you cannot communicate because there are no locals there. So I managed to interpret for them. And they found me useful.
And then we opened the line of communication, and I asked them the question, I said, where are you guys going? And they looked at me suspiciously, and they said, what do you mean? We are tourists. And I said, yes, right, you look very touristy to me. And, obviously, I figured out that they were escaping from Iraq and heading somewhere.
So they said, okay, we will do a deal with you. If you promise that you will help us with interpreting, then we will take you with us. And I said, fine, I’m desperate to find a place to go to. We didn’t know where we were going. They had a small piece of paper with a number written on it.
And we landed in KL Airport. After we passed Customs, we managed to dial the number. And on the other line was Mr Mahdi [?], the smuggler. And that was my first interaction with a people smuggler. He said, come and meet me in Chow Kit. It’s a place where you buy fake Louis Vuitton bags and Rolex watches. And he said, I’ll be standing in front of McDonald’s, I’ll be wearing a brown hat, shirt and shorts, and you’ll recognise me.
We got out of the taxi. And he looked like Steve Irwin to me. He was blonde, blue eyes. And he took us aside, and he said with a great deal of confidence, he said, give me your money, this amount of money. It was several thousand dollars. And give me your passports. And I’ll come back to you tomorrow with your next destination.
We had no clue whether he’s going to come back or not. So I questioned him and I said, well, hang on, I just met you five minutes ago. How do you expect me to trust you with my money and my passport, that you’ll come back tomorrow? And he looked at me, and he was so offended. And he said, how dare you question my credibility? I’m a respectable smuggler. And then he said, listen, smartass, do you have any other choice? And I said, well, technically speaking, I don’t.
So he turned up to be a respectable smuggler. He came the next day with first-class Garuda Airline tickets to Jakarta and a stamp on the passport, a visa to Indonesia. And he said, look, I’m very specific about what you need to do. And he said, don’t go to the Customs officer with the beard, don’t go to the covered woman, don’t go to the guy with the high-ranking, many stars on his shoulders. I want you to go to the guy with one star. Give him your passport. Make sure you put $100 inside your passport.
And I said, well, hang on, are you expecting me to bribe a Customs officer in a major international airport? And he looked at me and he said, yes, do you have a problem with that? And it was so easy for a person to say that. And it was completely alien to me, facing these kinds of situation. But I didn’t have any choice.
AL In a world where so many people are getting conned and ripped off, your questioning-my-credibility line is a classic response that conmen come back to when their mark seems to be catching on.
AL It could so easily have gone wrong.
MA So, lucky, this guy was very serious about conducting his business. And, obviously, he wanted to keep the line of trafficking of people going. So he was very, very accurate. And we got to Jakarta. He gave us another phone number, and he said, contact this phone number, and they will tell you where to go.
So we had no idea whether we’re going to go to Canada, America, Europe or Oceania. And so we got to a hotel on the outskirts of Jakarta, was like an hour-plus journey in the taxi. And as we entered the foyer, there were tens of Middle Eastern-looking people.
It was a very depressive situation where all these people were very desperate. They were there, stuck for months and months. A lot of them have lost all their money. And the two guys that I accompanied pretty much saved my life. Because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut, and they started telling people, oh, we’re here, we came from Abu Dhabi, and we brought this doctor with us. And I didn’t realise that doctors are important until that moment.
AL Why was a doctor important?
MA So I thought this is the end of the tunnel, and it was a dark end and there was no light at the other side. And I went to my room, and I thought, what am I doing here, and I’m going to stay here forever. But then there was a knock on my door, and this time it was Mr Omid [?] the smuggler.
And he was a heavily bearded guy and wearing black and black, very short stature. Fair complexions and speak with broken Arabic. And I could see that he was of a Kurdish background but pretending to be a Shiite Arab. And every second sentence, he mentioned verses from the Quran, not that he knows the Quran very well, because, obviously, he was trying to make up his religious affiliation to attract a certain kind of people, and mainly people coming from Iran.
And he said to me, oh, are you the doctor? And I said, yes, I am a doctor, what can I do for you? And he said, well, I prayed to God that God will help me with an imam or religious leader. And I said, okay. And he said, that imam is coming from Iran tomorrow, and I prayed to God that God will provide me with a doctor, and you’re the doctor.
And I said, well, still doesn’t make any sense. What can I do for you? And he said, well, the imam is coming from Iran with a piece of clay. It’s a holy clay. It’s mixed with the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson’s blood from Karbala. I said, okay. And he said, I have a brand-new boat that is leaving to Australia in two days. That was the first time for me to know that there is hope and knowing about the potential of getting to Australia.
And he said, the imam will sprinkle dust from that clay into the waters, and he will make the waters calm, and the journey of the boat will be safe. And I said, wow, this is a magnificent technology, all ship-liners should have this kind of technology. And he said, but I have a problem. And I said, obviously. Tell me about it. And he said, the imam has a few children with him, and one of his daughters is heavily pregnant, and I don’t want him to be distracted by her, so I need a doctor to look after the daughter so he can concentrate on calming the waters for the boat.
And I said, well, now it clicks, and, okay. And I asked him, and I said, how many people will be on the boat? And he said, ah, it’s a brand-new boat. I said, that’s beside the point. I need to know how many people. And he said, around 50 or so, and what do you need? And I said, well, I need a lot of drips, giving sets, normal saline bags, a lot of anti-emetic, like nausea and vomiting tablets, and injections, and a lot of fluid and cannulas for these people, because a lot of them will have seasickness and they will get dehydrated.
And he said, that’s fine, I’ll get it for you tomorrow. And I said, well, hang on, these are medical supplies. You can’t get these medical supplies that easily. You can’t go to the chemist and buy them. And he said, don’t you worry, I’m very heavily connected here. Did you see all these police cars outside? And there were ten or so police cars outside the hotel. And I said, yes, I noticed that. He said, all of these cars are for my protection, I’m very important here.
And, obviously, this guy turned up to be very well-connected. The next day he brought all that I asked for. The journey started from Jakarta in the early hours of the morning, in a bus. We were around 50. It took us 24 hours or so to reach an abandoned village on the southern shore of Java.
And, unfortunately, this smuggler was not as respectable as the one before him. When we got to the village, we found out that it was not only us. There were two other buses filled with people. And the boat was not as he promised. It was a leaky boat that’s not seaworthy.
And they started stripping people from all their belongings, watches, jewellery, anything they could take from them, and started filling the boat. And eventually we ended up being crammed like sardines, vertically. There was no space to sit down on the boat. A lot of people that were crammed on the boat were of Middle Eastern background, never seen the sea before.
And it was a fishing boat with a main hole in the middle as a fish container. And not knowing that this is the worst place to be, people were fighting each other to have a spot inside that fishing container, not knowing that they will suffocate from the diesel fumes, and because they are crowded, there will be lack of oxygen. And that was my biggest problem because I had to pull a lot of these people from that fishing container to the surface so they can breathe, because a lot of them lost consciousness.
The journey started. The boat journey was horrific. And I can’t describe it, no matter what I do. But I can tell you a simple kind of comparison. I do have a boat now, in Sydney Harbour, and I take a lot of visitors around the harbour on weekends. And on occasions, I try to play a game with them and take them outside the Heads, and everybody turns green in a minute because the sea is very rough.
And it was very rough, and people started vomiting. And, obviously, the imam’s piece of clay turned up made in China, didn’t do any good work, and it was not as holy as…
AL Wasn’t able to calm the waves for you.
MA Yes, so it didn’t calm any waves. And I was a horrible and hopeless doctor, and I couldn’t help many people because it was a very rocky boat, and it was like a warzone, this boat. At the end, to make it worse, as we reached international waters, I could see that there was a big grey ship, with white numbers written on it, tailing us. And I was wondering what that ship is doing.
So once we got to international waters, that ship came very close to us, and a black dinghy came from that ship and joined us. And we had our Indonesian skipper, with very broken English, he said to us, straight, Christmas Island, miss mainland in two weeks, I go home, goodbye. And he jumped on that dinghy and left us.
AL So now you have to pilot the boat yourselves to Christmas Island?
MA So we had to navigate in these rough seas a boat that is not seaworthy. We didn’t know how much fuel is left. And it was a miserable situation. And we were left to face the elements on our own. We were very lucky that there was an Iraqi sailor that escaped from the Iraqi Navy, that could read maritime charts. And he managed to steer the boat to safety.
We got to Christmas Island eventually, after 36 hours. It was a very rough journey. By the end of it, we were less than ten people that didn’t lose consciousness. And everybody was on the ground, on top of each other, covered with their body fluid. But once we got to Christmas Island, everything changed.
AL So this is 1999. And you’ve spoken before about the contrast between how you were treated on Christmas Island by the Federal Police and then what happened when you entered the Curtin Detention Facility. Tell us about that contrast, what it was to go from being Munjed the doctor to being Number 982.
MA So, basically, Christmas Island was not a detention centre back then. Christmas Island was just a phosphate-mining island, and it’s 200 nautical miles south of Java. And it was a beautiful island. It was the red crab season. There were around a hundred million red crabs on the island. The whole island was covered with red.
It’s very sad that the number of red crabs are halved now. And that’s not because of refugees. That’s because of the yellow ants that come with merchant ships, and they spit acid in red crabs’ eyes and then feed on them and kill them. But that’s a different story.
And Christmas Island could be a beautiful destination for tourism. And there were five or so Federal Police, and we were received with a great deal of hospitality, and very, very nice people. And we were taken to a basketball stadium. They had mattresses in that stadium, and they had a lot of Salvation Army clothes. And we had a clean change of clothes, and we were given the best showers. I still remember vividly the warm shower that I received after this horrific journey.
And, to make it better, I heard the first Australian joke. And the Federal Police captain introduced me to his deputy, and he was a very tall gentleman of, obviously, Dutch background or so. And he said, look at his shoulder. And he showed me his shoulder. He had a scar on his clavicle, what seems to be from a previous injury. And he said, when you get out of the mainland detention centre, I want you to go to this place called Tasmania. We had to chop off one of his heads and a few of his fingers to look like that. I couldn’t understand the joke back then, but, there you go, he was just trying to comfort me and be friendly.
And we were treated very humanely by the Federal Police. And I learnt very important lessons on Christmas Island. And I think on the fourth day I learnt the most important lesson in my life. Basically, I was asked by the Federal Police to accompany them to intercept another boat.
And we went on two barges. On one barge was the Federal captain as well as his deputy. And another barge, I was with another official, an officer who met me for the first time. And he didn’t care who I was. And I’ve never met him since. But as we went into the sea, he looked at me, and he said, when was the last time you spoke to your family? And I said to him, just before I left Jakarta. And he said, so your family do not know whether you’re alive or dead? And I said, no, they don’t.
So he said, well, sit on the ground. What I’m going to do is breaking the law, and I’m putting my job on the line. And don’t you dare tell anyone. Mind you, I tell everyone now. And he pulled out a satellite phone from his pocket, and he handed me the phone, and he said, dial the number, call your family and tell them that you’re safe and they may not hear from you for a few more years because you will spend time in a detention centre.
So this guy didn’t have to do what he did, but he saw in front of him a human being in need of help, and he offered the help. And thanks to him, I managed to speak to my mum and comfort her about my safety. And thanks to him, she continued to live till the day I was released. Because I’m sure that she would have died if she didn’t hear from me. So I’m forever grateful to this man, and I wish that one day he would hear what I’m saying about him. Funnily enough, the boat turned up to be filled with Vietnamese people, and I was a hopeless interpreter, obviously.
AL But then things are quite different when you get to Curtin?
MA So I spent five days on Christmas Island, and I was a bit upset that I was the last person to leave Christmas Island, because I was interpreting for people. So the captain on the island tried to comfort me, and he said, enjoy it while you can because the treatment on the mainland will be completely different. And he was absolutely spot on.
The minute we were handed over to the ACM, I don't know if you call it the American Correctional Management or Australian Correctional Management, the treatment completely changed. From the gentle, respectable, kind treatment by the Federal Police, the ACM treatment was absolutely brutal. We were treated like animals.
The first thing that happened to me as I entered the Curtin Detention Centre was that I was stripped of my human identity. My name was taken away from me. I was marked with a permanent marker on my shoulder, with a number 982. And we were kept inside compounds from within the main detention centre. We slept on army stretchers and in tents for months. There was one tap-water in the middle.
We were locked from 7 PM till 7 AM in these compounds, behind barbed wires. And we were head-counted four times a day. You have to stand in a queue for two hours plus in the heat of the sun, in the desert, north-western Australia, for hours, to be head-counted. It was extremely humiliating.
For nearly a year, we were fed colourless spaghetti with mincemeat and was given an apple in the afternoon and an orange in the evening. And I don’t mean to be pity about it, but it gets into you. It took me nine years to eat spaghetti bolognaise. I still remember vividly the Easter egg that we received on Easter. That was the only egg that I ate inside the detention centre for ten months or so.
All of that, I can understand. And all of that, I can appreciate, from the policy of the Government. But one thing that I couldn’t digest, and I would never accept as a human being, and that is… At some stage, we were 1,252 people. Among us there were 117 children. A lot of these children were unaccompanied minors. And there were no surveillance cameras. These minors were locked behind barbed wires in the middle of the darkness, without any surveillance, among adults, for months. And that was wrong.
As far as I know, we are the only country that incarcerate children among adults. And I witnessed that with my own eyes, that there was no surveillance. These children were left alone among adults, to be cared by foreigners and people who are not related to them. And you can imagine what could happen. So that’s why I was fighting that constantly. And I hope that one day I find answers for what the Government was doing.
Obviously, I was very outspoken, and I was singled out as a troublemaker. And no matter what I tell you about Curtin Detention Centre, I cannot give it justice. But I can give you a simple comparison between the detention centre and the jail system.
I had the pleasure of serving a significant time, many, many weeks, in different Australian prisons, including maximum-security jail. And I can tell you something, the jail system in Western Australia is absolutely superb. I recommend it to everybody.
AL And you’re being serious about this, aren’t you, that the quality of detention in places like Broome was much more humane than what you faced in the Curtin Immigration Detention…?
MA The jail system in Western Australia, the prison system in Western Australia, I can comment about it very clearly. I was treated with dignity. I was treated with respect. I was called by my name, and that means a lot. It means everything, basically. I was given a clean change of clothes. I was given proper food. I had access to reading newspapers, watching TV, and I had access to a library. I could study. And I had access to a phone. And none of that existed in the detention centre.
And the treatment by the prison officers was absolutely humane, absolutely perfect. And they treated us with respect. They treated us as individuals, not like the way we were treated in the detention centre, which was like treating animals.
AL Since being released from immigration detention 20 years ago, you’ve become one of the leading surgical pioneers in Australia with a technique of osseointegration. Tell us about osseointegration and what it was that led you after these extraordinarily traumatic experiences still to want to push the limits rather than to live an easy, safe and comfortable life doing the same thing as everybody around you.
MA Look, I must admit, after facing horrific experience inside the detention centre, and once I was released, I just wanted to move on with my life and I wanted to turn away from that past and move on with my life and just forget about everything. However, my nature is not like that. And I was always dreaming about doing something different and making a difference.
I’m not religious, but there is a lot of biblical wisdom. And one of which that I learnt very well from my father is that if we leave this earth, we have to leave something behind, either a charity that people can live from or knowledge that people can learn from or teach children to grow up and carry the good legacy and be positive in the society.
So I was always brought up to be positive, and I was always brought up to look at the glass half-full. And I had a dream. And in 1984, I watched the Terminator. Not knowing English very well, I didn’t understand the concept about the movie. And so I wanted to make Terminators. And I’m very grateful to be in Australia, and I’m very proud to be an Australian, that I could do this.
So I was very determined that… I wasted so much time in the detention centre, living on taxpayers and not being useful, so I started working the minute I was released. My first job was toilet-cleaning, and I loved it. And then I started knocking on doors, trying to work as a doctor.
And, funny enough, I went and visited so many hospitals and tried to ask them to give me a job. And, obviously, I got rejected from every single place. And then I learnt that maybe I’m doing it wrong. And a wise man said that the ultimate insanity is keep doing the same thing and expect different results. So, as a result of that, I went and discovered a place called the Centrelink, and I said to them, I’m a doctor, I would like to work. And they said, well, you need to do it by the book. And that was a very, very important lesson.
Mind you, when we were released out of the detention centre, I was not given any guidance. I didn’t know where to go. There was nothing. You’re just left in the street. Literally, I was left in the street, outside the detention centre. And I had to catch a bus from Derby to Broome.
And it was meant to be a punishment by the Immigration Manager of the detention centre. But he didn’t realise that he gave me a great opportunity to travel around the coast of Australia, from Derby to Broome to Perth to Adelaide to Melbourne to Sydney, and it was a fantastic journey. So I always learnt to spin any kind of situation in a positive way.
So I managed to get to the medical field and applied for different jobs. And I got the job and climbed the ladder very quickly. And I have to admit that the last thing I wanted is to remember the past, and I wanted to turn my back to all the past and concentrate on my life and move on and close that door on that dark past.
And I was very successful in pursuing my dream and becoming a successful doctor. And until that moment where I was allowed to join the Orthopaedic Training Scheme… And, as you may know, it’s one of the most prestigious specialties in Australia and in the world. And there is a saying that the only difference between God and orthopod, that God didn’t think that he was an orthopod. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. But that was the moment where changed my life again.
On the day of my welcome dinner to join the orthopaedic training, I was confronted with two of my peers who joined the training with me. And to my face, they said it to each other, isn’t a shame that the Australian Orthopaedic Training Scheme standard has dropped so low to allow a refugee to be one of us?
And that was an eye-opener for me. And I said, well, hang on, I think I should reconsider, and I should think again about what I want to do. And from there onward, I decided that I will open all the doors in the past. And I decided that there is no room in our society for hate, there is no room in our society for discrimination, and we’re all equal, regardless of our ethnicity, background, religion and colour.
And from there onward, these two people gave me a massive momentum to pursue my main goal of achieving, basically, equality and tolerance. And this is one of my goals in life, is that I work in every day and try to prove that we can’t accept hate, we can’t accept discrimination, and we have to treat each other the way we want to be treated.
AL You have quite a different relationship with your patients than many surgeons and do things like giving them your mobile number. How much is that about you, and how much is that something that you think other surgeons could learn from?
MA Well, look, I get criticised a lot. And I’m proud about what I do. I don’t sit in an ivory tower. I believe that we are all equal, and I believe that everybody deserves to be treated with respect. And I trust people and I put trust in everybody I meet. And I do what I do because I truly believe that we are all equal. And it is not a common practice to treat patients at the same level and…
AL As friends.
MA And I’m not ashamed of calling a lot of my patients friends. And I don’t believe in these artificial barriers. After all, we are all humans, as long as we treat each other with respect and as long as we don’t breach the boundaries of professionalism. And there is no harm of treating a patient as a friend. And I think this will increase the trust in the field and in the profession, opposite to what a lot of people think.
I don’t talk to people from above. I talk to them from the same level. And, after all, I truly believe that my job as a doctor and as an orthopaedic surgeon, I’m here to provide a service, and we are servants for our patients, basically. It’s like any service job.
And we do our best to provide the best service for these patients, and the patient always has the upper hand. Because we are the ones who are invading their life, and they have to build trust in who they allow to make decisions about them when they don’t have any power, when they are asleep on the table.
And I always know that, to me, doing a knee replacement is a knee replacement. But I always have to remember that a knee replacement for a patient is a life-changing experience, and a lot of these people are terrified before they get on that table.
I was a patient because I was diagnosed with cancer recently, and I was the patient on the table, and I could see where people come from. And it is something that we should consider very carefully and treat very carefully because it’s a life-changing event for these people. And we have to give that respect.
AL Yes, I imagine that your own experience of being a patient must’ve really affected you. A couple of quick final questions as we close. What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?
MA Look, I quite enjoy my work. I’m a workaholic. I work all the time, 24/7.
AL 14 patients today, you’re telling me?
MA We have 14 patients, but I have a very good group of friends and colleagues that I work with. And I’m very lucky to surround myself with a very, very strong team. And I am definitely a team-player. I play within a group of people. And I always say that I’m a small link in a big chain.
And the way medicine is going and the way medicine should be is that there is no hierarchy and individual importance among others. And we all play, as multidisciplinary team, that we provide the care for the patient. That’s the best way of conducting medicine.
I quite enjoy spending time on the harbour. I spend my weekend on my boat. I enjoy reading. I read between midnight and 2 AM. And I normally read about history. And I play chess and quite enjoy spending time with my little kids. But I spend a significant amount of my time in, basically, advocating for human rights.
And I believe that I have three goals in my life. And the first one is being achieved, which is providing the technology of osseointegration to people who needed it most, people who cannot afford it around the world, in developing countries. And we are running a lot of pilot studies in many countries, like Cambodia and Iraq and other places, and it’s been successful. And I think before the day comes that I die, this will happen.
The second dream, I hope that one day our politicians will mature and think about the future of this country. And it’s a simple dream, that, getting a fast train from Brisbane to Melbourne. And I strongly believe that one four-year term is much better than two three-year terms because we spend too much time thinking about elections, and we need to concentrate on building the future.
My third dream, which is very difficult to achieve, and that’s, I wish that the day will come when I wake up and I see people, regardless of their colour, ethnicity, belief, would treat each other as human beings. Believe me, I cut a lot of people, and every time I cut a skin, people bleed red blood. We all have the same colour blood.
AL Munjed Al Muderis, that’s all we have time for today, thank you for sharing your extraordinary life journey, and all the best of luck with the important projects you’re working on.
MA Thank you very much. It’s very kind of you to have me.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. If you enjoyed the conversation with Munjed, I reckon you’ll love my interviews with Susan Carland, Terry Waite, Sisonke Msimang, Anne Aly and Tim Soutphommasane. We really appreciate getting feedback, so leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts. It helps other find the podcast. Next week, we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.