Sydney Professor Munjed Al Muderis arrived in Australia as an asylum seeker after fleeing the tyranny of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq. He has now been named NSW Australian of the Year for 2020.
Orthopaedic surgeon and human rights advocate Professor Munjed Al Muderis is a firm believer that most things are achievable in Australia with hard work.
That old adage is definitely true when you consider how he began his life in this country two decades ago as an asylum seeker from Iraq.
On Tuesday, Prof Al Muderis was named NSW Australian of the Year for 2020 after he overcame "extraordinary" obstacles, to become an industry leader in the field of orthopaedic surgery specialising in hip, knee and reconstructive procedures.
Prof Al Muderis is also an ambassador for several organisations and an advocate for asylum seekers and refugees.
The 47-year-old tells SBS Arabic24 that in receiving the award, he is “very proud to represent the Arab community”.
“I was surprised by this recognition because all the nominees truly deserve to have it.”
Over the years, he has taken a team to his former home country seven times, at his own expense, to help victims of the conflict he fled.
He says receiving such awards, as well as receiving recognition from the likes of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, provides him with the motivation to continue his work.
“[I want to do] more in the future and work with a sincere effort to build this country and help the people in Iraq and Lebanon and the Arab countries that suffer from the disasters caused by their governments.
“To me all human beings are equal. I do not differentiate between the treatment of an Iraqi or Lebanese or Israeli or Iranian (..), there is no difference between human beings.”
Humble beginnings as a toilet cleaner
Prof Al Muderis graduated from Baghdad College High School in 1991 and went on to study medicine at various universities, including Baghdad University.
He fled the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein when he was ordered to cut the ears off of draft evaders while he was a junior surgeon at Saddam Hussein Medical Centre in Baghdad.
He refused to follow those orders and instead fled the country by boat in 1999 with Australia in his sights.
He was detained on Christmas Island and even spent time in several Australian jails, before settling on the mainland and landing a job as a toilet cleaner.
“There is nothing impossible in this country,” he says. “My first job in Australia was cleaning toilets. It was an honourable job.
“What is important is not to lose hope. You have to be perseverant and keep trying to work in any way possible, and pay your taxes," he adds.
“With time doors will open.”
Prof Al Muderis is thankful for the freedoms he’s afforded in Australia, especially the safe society and courts of law, which are elements that aren't as pronounced in his native Iraq.
He believes however that the Australian government mistreats asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
He says things must be addressed at a bureaucratic level, and among refugees to prove that they deserve asylum.
“The Australian government and immigration department mistreat people who come to Australia by boats, this is a big problem that I have been fighting from the start and continue to fight,” he says.
“Before asking others to change the way they treat us, we need to change ourselves.
“There is a portion of refugees who do not prove they deserve to stay in Australia.
“There is no doubt that the Australian government and immigration departments treatment of refugees is worse than some countries like Canada or Germany, but here the Australian people support refugees and sympathise with them.”
The bad minority overshadow the good majority
Prof Al Muderis believes that it is the responsibility of Australian citizens of Arab and other backgrounds to encourage people to become role models for the rest of their community.
He believes that with community leadership, “the Australian government won’t be given any room to say that this refugee wants to live off the government and the Australian people.”
“Refugees, like other people, are a segment of society. You have the doctors and the engineers and the cleaners and the carpenters (…); most of the people that come here are seeking a better future for themselves,” he says.
“The difference between a person and another is the work they do in serving the country they live in.”
Message to newly arrivals
He emphasises the importance of a hard work ethic, which he believes determines a person’s future prospects.
“Every person needs to think before doing anything, whether it is on the street or in your house because your actions affect others.
“People don’t look at you as an individual but rather as a representation of your community.”