It has been two weeks since the story about a Muslim doctor in a small Minnesota town hit the pages of the Washington Post, so Ayaz Virji is still working through his emotions. He’s uplifted and encouraged by the love and support that has poured in from around the country, but it’s the hate and threats that linger and sting.
The story captured several days in the lives of Virji and his wife, Musarrat, and their three children as they try to make a life in Dawson, a town of 1,400 people in western Minnesota’s Lac qui Parle County. A reporter followed Virji, a Georgetown-educated doctor, as he tried to speak to groups about Islam after the election of Donald Trump, who won the county with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Virji moved his family to Dawson from Harrisburg, Pa., in 2014 and felt accepted. People were friendly, patients poured in. He loved the job.
He began to realize, however, that a majority of his neighbors and patients had voted for a president who is seeking to ban Muslim immigrants from several countries, who suggested he might start a Muslim registry and who said “Islam hates us.” Virji became angry. He started to worry that people in Dawson secretly thought he was one of “them,” perhaps a terrorist. He even resigned as chief of staff and medical director the day after the election.
So when he was invited to speak to a group of people in Dawson about his faith, he hesitantly agreed. The first meeting went fine. But at a second talk in nearby Montevideo, several people in the audience shouted Bible verses and called him “the Antichrist.” When he was asked to talk in Granite Falls, 30 miles away, a concerned neighbor stopped by, as the Post described:
“He had heard from his wife about the talk in Granite Falls and, wanting to be helpful, had offered to lend Ayaz his bulletproof vest for the evening, and here it was, in the duffle bag he was slinging through the ornate front door. He set it down on a chair in the doctor’s study and pulled out the vest. Ayaz looked at it. He began taking off his suit jacket and tie to try it on.”
Virji didn’t use the vest, and he certainly didn’t need it.
During that speech, Virji became increasingly angry, and the crowd increasingly uncomfortable. But his audience was receptive and cordial, and Virji’s expectations of hostility did not appear. Later he wondered if he was too angry, too negative.
I asked Virji if he may have underestimated his neighbors who voted for Trump, that maybe they were more compassionate than he gave them credit for.
“Definitely,” said Virji. “If I learned anything, it’s that it’s complicated. It’s a journey for me.”
But Virji says some are trying to separate different versions of Trump to justify their vote for him. Virji feels you can’t separate Trump’s vision from his hateful rhetoric and policies, such as trying the Muslim ban or building a wall. “It’s all a package,” said Virji. If you accept Trump you are accepting his treatment of Muslims, immigrants and women.
It’s unlikely many in Dawson get the Washington Post, but word of the story has gotten around.
“It was well received in the community,” said Virji, who is Indian and was born in Kenya, but grew up largely in Florida. “It was a big deal for a lot of people. The response has been very supportive overall. People were very interested in how I felt about [the story] because they don’t want me to leave.”
He has gotten hundreds of e-mails and handwritten notes from across the country and “a handful of hate mail and death threats.
“I really want to retire from this,” Virji said of his community talks. “But the letters I read are so heartfelt, so genuine.”
Like the letter from a young girl named Chloe, who wrote that Virji was her hero. Or the note from a man in the military who said Virji had done more to serve the Constitution than he had.
“I think a number of people are just quiet,” Virji said. “I feel like some people want to tell me off, but they are afraid to because they need a doctor here. That silence is felt.”
He remains disturbed that so many people he knows “voted for a guy who wants to put me on a registry.” Since the story ran, “people have apologized to me,” he said.
I asked Virji if he now felt a responsibility to be a voice of Islam.
“That’s probably the conflict,” he said. “Deep down, I don’t want to be that. But if not me, then who? I’m in a position to do that, but when I get the death threats and hate, it makes me fear for my family. All it takes is one person.”
His middle son read the story on Snapchat and liked it. Musarrat also liked it. “She is very happy that we did this,” said Virji. “We talk every day and ask, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ”
“I’m going to continue here,” he said. “But the day [Trump] introduces a Muslim registry, I’m through here. After 9/11, when my wife was chased with a baseball bat, we’ve already been through all that. Not again.”
Virji still loves his job, loves his patients, and really wants to stay. But he’s also prepared to move outside the United States if he has to.
The reason he came to Dawson remains. “I wanted to step back and develop relationships with patients,” he said. “That feels like real medicine. There is integrity here.”
So, he’s considering more community meetings, if he has the time. “People can come together,” he said. “Let’s be good, let’s be civil to each other. There’s great despair, but a lot of good can come out of it. It’s unbelievable how much good is out there.”
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