Sunday, July 2, 2017

‘Love Thy Neighbor?’

Here below is an article that appeared in the Washington Post.  It is worth reading for many immigrants to the USA. It is written by Stephanie McCrummen who is a national enterprise reporter for The Washington Post. Previously, she was the paper's East Africa bureau chief. She has also reported from Egypt, Iraq and Mexico, among other places.
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The doctor was getting ready. Must look respectable, he told himself. Must be calm. He changed into a dark suit, blue shirt and tie and came down the wooden staircase of the stately Victorian house at Seventh and Pine that had always been occupied by the town’s most prominent citizens.That was him: prominent citizen, town doctor, 42-year-old father of three, and as far as anyone knew, the first Muslim to ever live in Dawson, a farming town of 1,400 people in the rural western part of the state.
“Does this look okay?” Ayaz Virji asked his wife, Musarrat, 36.
In two hours, he was supposed to give his third lecture on Islam, and he was sure it would be his last. A local Lutheran pastor had talked him into giving the first one in Dawson three months before, when people had asked questions such as whether Muslims who kill in the name of the prophet Muhammad are rewarded in death with virgins, which had bothered him a bit. Two months later, he gave a second talk in a neighboring town, which had ended with several men calling him the antichrist.
Now a librarian had asked him to speak in Granite Falls, a town half an hour away, and he wasn’t sure at all what might happen. So many of the comforting certainties of his life had fallen away since the presidential election, when the people who had welcomed his family to Dawson had voted for Donald Trump, who had proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, toyed with the idea of a Muslim registry and said among other things, “Islam hates us.”
Trump had won Lac qui Parle County, where Dawson was the second-largest town, with nearly 60 percent of the vote. He had won neighboring Yellow Medicine County, where Granite Falls was the county seat, with 64 percent. Nearly all of Minnesota outside the Twin Cities had voted for Trump, a surprising turn in a state known for producing some of the Democratic Party’s most progressive leaders, including the nation’s first Muslim congressman.
Now Trump was in the White House, and Dawson’s first Muslim resident was sitting in his living room, strumming his fingers on the arm of a chair. The pastor had called to say two police officers would be there tonight, just in case. The late afternoon sun came in through the windows, beyond which was a lovely town of sprawling cottonwoods, green lawns and so many people the doctor felt he no longer knew or maybe even could trust. The doorbell rang.
“Hey there,” Ayaz said, snapping out of his thoughts to greet his neighbor.
“Hiya,” said the neighbor, who worked in security.
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.
This was Dawson six months after the election, which was how Ayaz most often thought of things these days — before and after.
He remembered his first visit three years before, driving with Musarrat on a narrow highway west into the prairie and passing one little farm town after another — Cosmos, Prinsburg, Bunde, and finally seeing the wooden sign, “Welcome to Dawson.”
They arrived on a breezy fall day, and he remembered how it all seemed almost corny, from the park with little gnome figurines, to the wide streets named Oak and Maple, to the formidable Grace Lutheran church at the town center. The whole visit felt like one big welcoming parade.
Welcome to our hospital and clinic, where the two other doctors, the nurses and other staff members were lined up to greet them. Welcome to the school, where the principal showed them around. Welcome to the two-block downtown, where there was a butcher, and a bowling alley, and a diner named Wanda’s, and as they walked along, Musarrat noticed something rare. She didn’t feel people staring at her headscarf. They were saying hello and smiling.
Ayaz remembered that it “just felt right.” Wholesome. He had been wanting to get away from his job working for a huge health-care chain in Harrisburg, Pa., and find a way to practice what he called “dignified medicine.” The town seemed to want him, too, a doctor with a medical degree from Georgetown University and an interest in rural health. No one seemed to care that he was Muslim, of Indian descent, born in Kenya and raised in Florida. They just needed a good doctor. So the Virjis decided to move to Dawson.
By the winter of 2014, they were settling into the Victorian house on Pine and the life Ayaz imagined for his family. The children — Maya, Imran and Faisal, the oldest, who was 12 then — enrolled in the public school around the corner. Musarrat set up a spa business down the street. Ayaz often walked to work, where his smiling photo hung on the clinic and hospital walls along with his titles: chief of staff and medical director. He was one of only three doctors practicing in Dawson, and one of a few in the county, and was soon busy with patients and helping to plan a $7 million expansion of the facilities.
He and Musarrat made friends — Jason, Betty, Duane, Stacey and other Dawsonites who would drop by for kebabs or chicken parmesan. When John and Jill Storlien, the local butchers, found out that Ayaz was driving all the way to Minneapolis to get his halal meat, they offered that perhaps they could manage. Their cows came in facing Mecca anyway, it turned out. Ayaz texted them the prayer to say as they butchered, and so one day in a tiny Midwestern town, two Lutherans spoke their first Islamic verses over the carcass of a cow. In summer, neighbors spread blankets and chairs on the Virjis’ front lawn and watched the annual parade float by.
And that was how it was going in Dawson, even through an election season that Ayaz found increasingly disturbing, as Trump kept whipping up crowds by saying that maybe Syrian refugees were part of a secret army, and maybe he’d have to shut down mosques, and maybe Muslims were the one immigrant group that could not become fully American.
All of that was in the air, but in a county that Barack Obama had won twice, Ayaz saw only two “Trump-Pence” yard signs during the whole campaign. He never thought Trump would win, much less in Dawson.
The morning after the election, he was shocked and angry, and when he looked up the local results before he went to work, the feelings only intensified. Not only had Trump won the county, he had won Dawson itself by six percentage points.
By the time he got to the hospital, he was pacing up and down the hallways, saying he hoped people realized that they just voted to put his family on a Muslim registry, and how would he be treated around here if he didn’t have “M.D.” after his name? People tried to reason with him. A colleague told him it’s not that people agreed with everything Trump said, and Ayaz said no, you’re giving them a pass. He told the hospital’s chief executive that he was thinking of resigning, and she told him to take some days to cool off.
He and Musarrat talked about what to do. He began investigating a job in Dubai. He spoke to his brother in Florida, an investment adviser, who had received a fax after the election that read, “Get the f--- out of my country you Muslim pig,” and was moving to Canada. Musarrat kept thinking about the time after Sept. 11 when a man had chased her with a baseball bat, yelling about her headscarf.
Nothing like that had happened in Dawson, but the Virjis began feeling differently about the town. They wondered whether the people who had seemed so warm were secretly harboring hateful thoughts or suspicions about them. Musarrat told Ayaz that she noticed more silence from certain friends. Ayaz was stopped on a sidewalk by a woman who said, “Jesus loves you,” and wondered what would happen if he said, “Muhammad loves you.” Another day, he ran into a patient who told him that a lot of farmers had voted for Trump because of sky-high health insurance premiums, not because of “anything racial,” and please, no one wants you to go.
Ayaz wasn’t sure whether to believe that. But he and Musarrat decided to stay, at least for the time being, and he tried to transform his anger into understanding. Maybe people really didn’t know, he told himself. Maybe people were suffering in ways he didn’t understand. Not long after that, a patient of his named Mandy France, a pastor in training at Grace Lutheran, asked if he might be willing to give a talk about Islam to the community. She said she’d been horrified by some of the things she’d heard people saying about Muslims in her prayer group.
Ayaz had reservations. He almost never talked about his religion, and he wasn’t sure it was his responsibility to teach people about it now. On the other hand, he thought how else will people learn, and so three months after the election, Dawson’s first Muslim resident found himself standing on the stage of the high school auditorium in a suit, a bright spotlight shining on him.
He squinted, trying to make out the faces in the crowd of nearly 400 people filling up the seats. In the days before, people had been saying the whole thing was an effort to convert Christians to Islam. People had called the school, angry that the event was being held there. Ayaz had worked for weeks on what he would say, writing out an intricate 11-page outline by hand — from “step into shoes of Muslim” to “Quran-philosophical framework” — but when he ran it by Pastor Mandy, she had said no, you need to talk to people on a basic level. They are scared. So he tried to address the tension.
“I heard many people were protesting this talk,” he began. “And I have to say, that stings a little bit. I mean, do I look that intimidating?”
He laughed, and a few people in the audience laughed.
“Do I look like a terrorist?” he said smiling at them, and after talking for an hour about what “99.99 percent” of Muslims believe, he ended with a slideshow of family photos.
“Look! We’re normal!” he said. “That’s our cat!”
People applauded and even stood up, and when it was over, some of them submitted questions to be answered later in the community newspaper.
“Do Muslims believe in birth control?”
“Do the majority of Muslims tolerate/respect other religions?”
“Why are terrorist attacks always from Muslims?”
When Ayaz read them, he wondered if this was what people were thinking when they saw him walking down the street. Still, he felt good enough about the whole exercise that when he was invited to speak in another town, he agreed, even though he had some reservations about venturing beyond Dawson.
Montevideo was 20 minutes east down the highway, a town of 5,200 people. He’d given a talk on obesity at the hospital there once but otherwise he was a stranger, and when he arrived at the library, about 75 people were waiting, including several men with Bibles. As he began talking about how faith without deeds is meaningless, they began shouting verses at him. They yelled that they were praying for his salvation and called him the antichrist. Their tone became so hostile that Musarrat, who had brought their 9-year-old daughter, moved to the back of the room, closer to the exit. In the days after, people wrote letters to the local paper saying how embarrassed they were at the doctor’s reception, but Ayaz decided he was done with trying to explain Islam to rural Minnesota.

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