Just two years ago, Dr. Ayaz Virji, an acclaimed bariatric specialist, made headlines from his home in rural Minnesota.
The chief doctor at the local hospital, Johnson Memorial Services, had been swept up in the anti-Muslim hate tide that surged even higher in his corner of the world. Virji had moved his family from the East coast so he could get away from turnkey medicine and make a difference in an underserved area. But after the 2016 election, he noticed a new brazenness in the expression of hate.
“You can tell the hate mail because there’s no return address,” he recently noted from his home in Dawson, Minn.
In 2018, we did a story about Dr. Virji and returned this summer to catch up with him and his family. He was taking a break from the talks that he and Pastor Mandy France had started on the theme of inclusion and tolerance called “Love Thy Neighbor,” and that had resulted in a book.
Had all of that made any difference?
“My feeling is we were getting some traction. Initially, the voices against us were certainly louder than closer to the tail end. We don’t have any metric; people were coming and people were supportive, and my feeling is we were getting some traction,” he said.
The town’s mayor – also a barbershop owner – agreed.
“[The talks] really made a difference, and enlightened the community. [We learned] Muslims are nice just like white people are nice and Black people are nice, just respect them as a person,” Randy Tensen said.
Tensen had cut Virji’s hair before. He said the family was well-liked and the doctor was known for correctly diagnosing tough cases that had eluded others.
“I’ve always got along with him good, I’ve never looked at him as a Muslim,” he said.
And for awhile, the Virjis had settled into a quiet life in their town of 1,500 people. But having his Islamic faith characterized as evil by prominent political figures, conservative media and even his own neighbors prompted the country doctor to vocalize his objections.
“My neighbors, my friends, whom I love, I respect them and [they’re]probably some of the best people that I know – far better than I am – would be the people who would vote for the guy who says, ‘Punch the guy in the face, I’ll pay his legal fees,’ or who would vote for the guy who makes fun of the disabled reporter. But they did it, and it’s like how do you reconcile that?” he said in an appearance on Almanac last year.
Coincidentally, a job offer from New York University Medical School in Abu Dhabi enticed Virji to make a big decision. He moved his family to the Muslim-majority country last year and took up a post as an educator to future medical doctors. He dropped down to part-time at Johnson Memorial Hospital.
“For me, there was a sense of exhaustion. We had started this micro movement, but that’s not what I came here for. I didn’t come here to tell people about my religion and now we’re so in it, that’s not my duty. My duty is to take care of people,” he said.
Both Dr. Virji and his wife, Musarrat, said they loved living in Dawson. But the Abu Dhabi relocation brought some needed relief to everyone.
“The biggest thing for me, being a Muslim woman, was not being looked at as someone who is different. I could wear traditional Indian garb, I can wear jeans and a shirt, no one would look at me twice, versus walking out here in Dawson and hearing the whispers, ‘Oh, did you see her, what was she wearing, isn’t she hot in that?'” Musarrat said.
And while Dr. Virji said his work in Abu Dhabi is ‘incredibly rewarding,’ the family has not sold their house. They return to Dawson at least twice a year, where the doctor will check up on his patients.
“I won’t ever sell this house, and I tell Musarrat, we’ll always move back to Dawson,” he said from his Dawson patio. “It’s not if, but when.”
Dive deeper into Dr. Virji’s experience in Dawson, Minn., in “Muslim Doctor Finds Purpose and Pushback in Rural Town.”
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