Munjed Al Muderis Is Working Miracles

07 October 2019
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From refugee to globe-trotting surgeon, Munjed Al Muderis has defied odds and expectations to become a force for good

A thousand times over, Munjed Al Muderis’ story could have been the story of a man dehumanised to the point of radicalisation, or the story of another unassimilated refugee living in helplessness. Instead, his story is a reminder that a person can always start – and restart – again.

Al Muderis admits that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In reality, it may have been gilded. His is a family tree stuffed with cultural and political influence. He grew up with a nanny and a housekeeper. A chauffeur drove him to his school. Such was the standing of Al Muderis’ education that Saddam Hussein’s own sons, Uday and Qusay, attended his high school – the latter at the same time as Al Muderis. (He recalls their obnoxious and violent behaviour, and how they’d often arrive for school in a new Mercedes, or on quad bikes.)

While harbouring a keen interest in robotic limbs – driven by watching The Terminator at 12 – the heavy burden of family legacy saw Al Muderis go on to do a degree in medicine. His time at university was continually interrupted as the First Gulf War broke out in 1990. US forces were pounding the Hussein regime, which would eventually be forced to retreat from Kuwait.

Like most Iraqis, Al Muderis didn’t consider the war reason enough for life to grind to a halt. He finished his degree and with the allure of the Terminator carrying through to adulthood – he decided, early on, to specialise in orthopaedics.

It was in 1999, as a first-year medical resident, that the trajectory of his life forever shifted. Under the glowing fluorescent lights of Saddam Hussein Medical Centre in Baghdad, military police marched a queue of army deserters into a dingy operating theatre where Al Muderis and his peers were prepping for the day.

Their orders were concise – by decree ‘115/1994’ of the constitution, the doctors were to amputate the ears of each deserter. The lead surgeon, citing the Hippocratic Oath, refused. He was taken to the hospital’s parking lot, briefly interrogated and shot dead in full view of his colleagues.

“If anyone shares his view, step forward,” stated a brutish officer. “Otherwise, carry on.”

Al Muderis, in shock, could calculate only one path to escape – hiding in the women’s changing room. He quietly slunk out of the operating theatre and locked himself into a cubicle.

Hunched over porcelain, listening to each passing voice and footstep with dread, Al Muderis’ treacherous journey had begun. As horrifying as it was, sitting on that toilet was one of the last moments of reprieve Al Muderis would have for more than a year.

The budding surgeon’s family smuggled him out of the country and into Jordan. Al Muderis crossed the border in a car, with around $20,000 strapped to his gut – a parting gift from his devastated mother. Eventually, he fled to Indonesia, where he handed over his passport and paid a smuggler for a spot on a small fishing boat bound for Australia.

Then 27 years old, he survived a harrowing 36-hour journey, doing his best to care for pregnant and elderly passengers, all sardined in a mass of humanity that was soon stained by urine and vomit.

Eventually docking on Christmas Island, Al Muderis was vacuumed into Australia’s refugee system. Curtin Detention Centre, in Western Australia’s remote and arid Kimberley region, would be his home for the indefinite future. There, his name was replaced by a number – 982. It would be nearly a year until he was again humanised.

Al Muderis recalls a visit from a supposedly high-ranking official of Australia’s Department of Immigration that occurred shortly after his arrival at Curtin.

“You are not welcome here. The Australian people do not want you here. You will be detained here indefinitely,” barked the woman. “However, if you choose to go back to your homeland, we can help facilitate your return.”

He tells stories of squalid conditions, emotional and racial abuse, and unspeakable cruelty towards children. At one point, collaborating with an intrepid male nurse, Al Muderis used a disposable camera to snap the horrid reality of the detention centre. The nurse mailed the photos to all major Australian newspapers, magazines and television stations. No one ran the story.

Al Muderis’ 10 months in Curtin was punctuated by nights in solitary confinement and a short stint in the maximum security section of Broome Jail for the supposed incitement of unrest within the Centre. Tellingly, Al Muderis found the latter a welcome respite from Curtin – for one, he was referred to by name.

“I’ll tell you what, the prison system in Australia is brilliant,” he says. “I strongly recommend that.”

He was eventually cleared of all charges.

In August of 2000, Al Muderis was dumped, unceremoniously, at a dusty bus stop to begin a new life in Australia.

After his qualifications were laughed at, Al Muderis went and completed a new medicine degree. He would go on to play a leading role in reshaping the face of orthopaedics.

Al Muderis’ osseointegration procedure – fusing a prothesis directly into bone, advancing the old technique of fitting it over a stump – is a departure from convention. As remarkable as it is successful, the procedure has helped thousands around the world use limbs thought lost forever. Now, Al Muderis travels the world, operating on wheelchair-bound soldiers and at-risk communities in remote towns, giving the gift of movement.

After seeing news of his work, then Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi invited Al Muderis to return to Baghdad. He asked Al Muderis to operate on those civilians and soldiers who had lost limbs to the scourge of Daesh. Al Muderis accepted.

GQ joined Al Muderis on his return to Baghdad, and his eventual meeting with al-Abadi.

One hot afternoon, Al-Abadi probed him with questions on osseointegration. He queried the safety of the procedure, and marveled about the remarkable way in which bone fuses to titanium. Al Muderis tried to explain.

“Have you seen The Terminator?” asked Al Muderis.

A blank face came back from the then prime minister.

The prime minister’s primary focus was firmly set on the wellbeing of the injured. “It’s very important for them to feel like they’re back to normal again.”

Al-Abadi’s eyes went warm and bright when the doctor pulled out a laptop to show him a short clip of a once wheelchair-bound patient walking again.

“He’s an Iraqi, he trained in Baghdad, and he’s willing to help his fellow Iraqis,” the Prime Minister later told GQ. “He shows that Iraqis are very resilient. Every Iraqi is proud of him.”

Words & Photography: Adam Baidawi