Renowned surgeon and author Dr. Munjed Al Muderis spoke at a Refugee Action Committee (RAC) event last Thursday on his experience as a refugee seeking asylum in Australia.

Dr. Al Muderis is an Associate Professor in orthopaedic surgery, and pioneer of a revolutionary procedure in Australia called osseointegration. Osseointegration involves connecting part of a prosthetic limb directly to the bone of an amputee, allowing them significantly increased mobility and quality of life.

Close to 300 people attended the event at the ANU’s Copland Lecture Theatre, to hear the Doctor’s talk: Refugees Make Australia Better

Al Muderis, who now lives happily in his Sydney apartment, fled his birthplace of Baghdad, Iraq during the harrowing days of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He began the talk by comparing his former and current homes.

“It was pretty much like Sydney…We had fireworks, we used to go on rooftops and watch the fireworks, but they were a bit different, they were real missiles hitting planes.”

Working as a surgeon in a Baghdad hospital, Al Muderis fled after he and his colleagues were ordered to amputate the ears of army draft evaders.

“The head of department refused, and he ended up with a bullet in his head in the carpark at the front of the hospital.” He said.

Following the atrocities that occurred Al Muderis escaped to Jordan. With Jordan being no safer, he departed for Malaysia, believing that it was “the only place on Earth that would give an Iraqi national with a half decent passport a visa.”

Al Muderis met with the smuggler in Kuala Lumpur, who demanded his passport and a large sum of cash, and sent him off with others to Jakarta, Indonesia. From Jakarta, he then paid $2000 dollars to be smuggled in a small fishing boat with a large group of refugees who were basically crammed in on top of each other. 

“We felt like sheep being herded by this people smuggler.”

Eventually, the boat made it to Christmas Island, where Al Muderis stayed for five days, from there he was sent to Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia.

Al Muderis went on to speak about his dehumanising experiences at the Curtin camp, drawing parallels between his time in an Australian maximum security prison, which he described as heaven in comparison. 

This was partly due to being referred to by his own name, a luxury he was not afforded during his time in detention. At the detention centre he was marked with a number, which was his name during his time there. 

“We were treated like animals.” he said. “I had to stand and be marked with 982, a number, with permanent marker on my shoulder. That reminded me of some previous historical events…”

Concerns of detainee’s mental health have been rising, with recent data showing that incidents of self harm at Nauru occur on average, almost twice a day.

Data also shows that over half of incident reports involve children, despite making up less than a quarter of detainee population.

“There were 117 minors among us, a lot of these minors were children and were unaccompanied… They were locked from 7pm to 7am in tents behind barbed wire with no surveillance cameras, among adults. This is wrong and it has to stop.”

“I just cannot understand how politicians give their kids a kiss goodbye to school everyday, and they can do that to other people’s children.”

Eventually Dr. Al Muderis was released from detention, and spent a short time receiving welfare payments, before moving from hospital to hospital in search of a job. His determination has helped him become the surgeon he is today.  

Dr. Al Muderis solemnly remembers those he left behind in Iraq. It is estimated that there are currently almost 3 million internally displaced persons within Iraq, with nearly 150,000 of them being in Baghdad.

Out of the 300 people who attended the talk, many stayed behind afterwards to give their thanks to the doctor, with one particularly moved woman just wanting to hug him. However, not everyone there was in support of the doctor; one attendee argued the possibility of refugees being terrorists and criminals. 

Al Muderis said he shared these concerns, but said the possibility of terrorists seeking refugee status is unrealistic, as many terrorists in Arab countries have access to wealth and passports.

“If you were intending to do a terrorist attack, would you think about taking the risk to go to Malaysia, Indonesia, then come to Australia on a boat, then come to Nauru for 4 years, then when you [finally] get somewhere, go ‘hooray’ and get a backpack and blow yourself up?”

Organiser and Canberra RAC volunteer Sophie Singh, said negative perceptions like these were the very reason the event was organised.

“This meeting is part of our work to offer an alternative narrative to the negative picture of refugees that has been promoted by successive Australian governments, as manipulative, untrustworthy people who are not like us.” She said.

“Dr. Munjed Al Muderis, like many former refugees, play an overwhelmingly positive role in the communities of which they are a part of.”

“Imagine, had Dr. Muderis reached Australia in late 2013, rather than late 1999, he may still be trapped in Australia’s offshore detention nightmare on Manus Island.”

“Imagine the many hundreds of men, women and children whose lives are being destroyed in Australia’s offshore camps.”