Australian of the Year set to be crowned

A doctor who fled Iraq rather than carry out mutilations could be named Australian of the year.
A doctor who fled Iraq rather than carry out mutilations could be named Australian of the year.

A refugee who fled Saddam Hussein's brutal regime to fulfil his boyhood dream of making "terminators" as an orthopaedic surgeon could win Australia's top award.

Munjed Al Muderis is one of the leading contenders to be crowned Australian of the Year in Canberra on Saturday evening.

His remarkable journey started about 20 years ago, when he was enjoying a comfortable life as a young doctor in his former homeland, Iraq.

In 1999, republican guards and Ba'ath Party members belonging to Saddam Hussein's regime arrived at the Baghdad hospital he was working at.

"All of a sudden everything changed in my life," he said.

The Hussein forces had three busloads of army deserters with them.

"They ordered us to abandon the elective lists and start mutilating the deserters' ears by chopping them off," the 47-year-old said.

The head of the department refused and was executed on the spot.

"I couldn't do it so I had to choose between running away or openly refusing and ending up with a bullet in my head," Prof Al Muderis said.

He fled Iraq on a leaky boat bound for Australia, a "horrific" journey that helped shape the person he is.

After a year in WA's Curtin Detention Centre, he vowed to move on with his life without holding grudges.

The young doctor overcame extraordinary obstacles to become an orthopaedic surgeon.

"I managed to achieve my childhood dream of making 'terminators'," Prof Al Muderis said.

He specialises in the osseointegration technique, which helps amputees walk again using robotic implants.

If he becomes Australian of the Year, Prof Al Muderis plans to use his platform to advocate social cohesion and action on climate change, which in his view includes nuclear power generation.

"What's very important is we don't only tolerate each other but we accept each other regardless of our colour, race, sex, ethnicity, or background - after all we all share the same colour blood," he said.

"I think our politicians should revisit the idea of having nuclear power because it is safe, it is clean and we have the exact perfect environment."

Fellow surgeon James Muecke from South Australia is considered favourite to become Australian of the Year.

Indigenous singer-songwriter Archie Roach is Victoria's nominee, while education advocate Annie Fogarty won the WA award.

Marine, Antarctic and climate scientist Jess Melbourne-Thomas is representing Tasmania.

An anti-bullying, suicide prevention educator and social entrepreneur Rachel Downie, comes from Buderim in Queensland.

Darwin-based sports medicine specialist and ex-flying doctor Geoffrey Thompson won the NT award, while Katrina Fanning, a women's rugby league pioneer, is representing the ACT.

Awards will also be presented in the categories of young, senior and local hero of the year in this 60th anniversary of the gongs.

Australian Associated Press