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‘Prison is better than detention’: Iraqi-born medical specialist

Michael Visontay
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Published: 16 September 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

“I WAS A NAUGHTY BOY when I was in Curtin detention centre, so they put me in prison. And I can tell you that prison is better than detention,” Iraqi-born Australian doctor Munjed Al Muderis told the annual fundraising dinner for Together for Humanity in Sydney’s west on Saturday night.

Associate Professor Muderis, now one of the world’s pre-eminent orthopaedic surgeons, spoke bluntly about the discrimination and prejudice he faced since fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime 20 years ago, in his address to the dinner in Bankstown for the inter-faith educational organisation founded by Rabbi Zalman Kastel.

Over 200 people, including politicians, religious and community leaders from across the spectrum, listened intently to the insights and experiences of Muderis and those of educator Alpha Cheng, son of the murdered Sydney accountant Curtis Cheng, who was killed by a teenage extremist in Parramatta in 2015.

Associate Professor Muderis was working as a doctor at a hospital in Baghdad in 1999, when he was ordered by Saddam to cut off the ears of deserting soldiers. He refused, escaped, leaving his family behind, and ended up on a crowded leaky boat that took him to the west coast of Australia, and then ten months in the Curtin Detention Centre.
“The Australian government tells you how evil people-smugglers are. But let me tell you: they save lives."

His odyssey, from refugee to surgeon, was full of surprising kindness, and prejudice. He told the audience about the aid worker in the Middle-East who offered him his satellite phone so Muderis could ring his mother to reassure her that he was safe but he might not see her for a long time.

He spoke bluntly about the plight of refugees globally. “The crisis is worse than World War 2. People who are born in UNHCR refugee camps can expect to grow old and die in these camps.

“The Australian government tells you how evil people-smugglers are. But let me tell you: they save lives.

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Associate Professor Muderis said that although Australia had provided him with great opportunity, he had also endured prejudice in places he least expected it. During his training to become an orthopaedic surgeon, he told the dinner, he overheard two of his fellow doctors telling each other that it was “a shame that the standard has dropped so far that they allow refugees into the training program”.

After that, he decided, he was determined to stand up against hate and discrimination, he told the audience.

Together for Humanity (TFH) is a multi-faith not-for-profit organisation that helps schools, organisations and communities by connecting students, teachers and community members with people from diverse backgrounds in an open, supportive and enjoyable setting.

Since it was founded in 2002 by Rabbi Zalman Kastel, TFH has worked with more than 100,000 Australian students and teachers in their primary and secondary school presentations and workshops across Australia.


Main photo: Dr Munjed Al Muderis (Michael Visontay)

About the author

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is the Commissioning Editor of TJI. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission?, co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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