Healing with humour

The Sudanese civil war survivor who says laughter is the best medicine.

Mujahid Ahmed

Mujahid Ahmed was minutes away from boarding a plane from Sudan to Australia to begin his university studies, when he was tapped on the shoulder by officials and forced into a boy soldier camp.

It was 2000, towards the end of the Sudanese civil war, and although his status as a student meant an exemption from forced conscription, he was told the rules had changed.

Mujahid was only 17 years old, but he was one of the oldest in the camp. The boys, some as young as 13, were broken into submission by the soldiers, with no formal army infantry training. The aim was to normalise fighting and war.

“The Sudanese civil war between North Sudan and South Sudan was the longest civil war in history.

“One million people died and nearly 10 million were displaced. The forced conscription aspect of it was so rudimentary that, in a way it was pretty much: here's a rifle, shoot that way,” he said.

Mujahid was forced to train with little rations and trek across the hot desert, with temperatures above 50 degrees. He suffered multiple injuries during combat, including a rifle shot grazing his right arm and shattering the bones in his left arm as he tried to scale a wall. He used shoelaces and newspaper to form a cast as medical care was scarce.

While his family thought he was in Australia studying, he was laying in a makeshift hospital in Sudan. By chance, his uncle came across him and was able to bribe officials with his Rolex. Mujahid escaped on a cargo plane.

Mujahid Ahmed

“I went back to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to get cleaned up, with two steel rods inserted to hold my arm together, then I started my first semester of my Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide,” he said. 

Quick to downplay his time in the camp, Mujahid said he was better off than many others.

“I don't consider my ordeal a tale of heroism, there's plenty of others that didn't get back. So, I never recount the tale with any sort of pride or joy. I think of everyone else.”

Born in Sudan, Mujahid and his family moved to the UAE when he was young because his father, a journalist, suffered persecution and was frequently arbitrarily arrested before they left.

Mujahid wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a journalist. However, his parents didn’t want him to go through what they did, as they felt journalism wasn’t a financially secure career, and encouraged Mujahid to become a doctor instead.

“My parents had this massive dream that I was going to be a doctor, which is a typical African mentality where boys are either doctors or engineers, and girls are either nurses, dentists or teachers. It's pretty much pre-ordained in a way,” he said.

After escaping Sudan, Mujahid settled into his studies quickly at the University of Adelaide, with the intention of applying for postgraduate medicine after completing his studies.

But plans to transfer to medical school went out the window when Mujahid realised he was more passionate about psychology, and its ability to heal people. He took a break from studying before starting his honours so he could earn money to support his family. Working part-time as a community health worker for young refugees including torture and trauma survivors, Mujahid knew early on this was the right path for him.

“They say sometimes you're in a job, sometimes you're in a career. When you're in a job there's too much time, when you're in a career there's never enough time,” he said. 

Mujahid’s work with refugees has taken him to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where he has worked as a torture and trauma counsellor with refugees and asylum seekers held in offshore immigration detention.

“I saw clients from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Somalia, who had all arrived by boat. And while they were from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds, the one thing they had in common was that they were all genuinely fleeing persecution.

“All I could do was to equip them with skills and emotional armour to be able to cope with being there because I could not fix their situation.”

With such a mentally draining job, Mujahid turned his attention to stand-up comedy as an outlet. He started his career in 2005 by competing in the annual Raw Comedy competition.

His first show did not go as planned.

“It was terrible. Nearly as traumatic as the war in a way, I could almost hear someone cough next door because it was so quiet,” he said.

Mujahid Ahmed

His stubborn streak didn’t let him give up. He went home, wrote as many jokes as he could and tested them on his friends and work colleagues. Second time around, he received critical acclaim, and soon after he was invited to appear on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, an ABC Stateline special, and became a regular guest on ABC 891.

Mujahid’s humour draws on his own experiences and work with refugees to bring about social change. Comedy has taken him all over the world and led to the opportunity to be a TEDx talk keynote speaker.

While Mujahid still performs when he can, he is also working towards his Masters to become a clinical psychologist.

“I feel privileged. Every client I’ve worked with shares something with me that they wouldn't normally share with anyone else. I see little sparks of hope, their tenacity and resilience. Quite often, seeing them months or years later, they've done better and I take pride in knowing that I made a tiny contribution to where they are now.”

Story by Renee Capps
Photos by Meaghan Coles

Tagged in lumen summer 2020, lumen