MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There are about 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States. Five of them live in Dawson, Minn. And all of them are part of the same family.
Dawson is a small town about 150 miles west of the Twin Cities. It's the place the Virji family has called home for the past two years.
As of late, they say their faith has them on the defensive.
Like many families, the Virji's like to travel. China, Dubai and New York City are just a few of their favorites. But perhaps their boldest adventure was moving from Pennsylvania to rural Minnesota in 2014.
"I left a very lucrative leadership position. In fact, that hospital has several times called me to try to come back, to recruit me back, but I've just found a professional satisfaction that was second to none working here," Dr. Ayaz Virji said.
Ayaz is the medical director of the local hospital.
It was passion for rural medicine that brought him to this town of 1,500, near the South Dakota border.
"The people are amazingly genuine and nice here in the rural towns, and we have had nothing but a gracious welcoming when we came, when we arrived. We felt that for the longest time," Ayaz said.
Lately, he has been speaking in the past tense.
"It's actually kind of becoming a little exhausting now cause I feel like I'm on the defense every time, as if I have to prove to them why I'm not those people that are on TV," Musarrat, Ayaz's wife, said.
With a controversial immigration ban in the news, the town's only Muslim family is feeling the tension.
"What we found is people, the really don't know. They don't know. They think that Islam promotes terrorism. They think that Islam oppresses women. They think that Sharia tells people to cut people's heads off," Ayaz said.
There were a lot of questions about Islam circling this small town, so a woman of another faith stepped in. A Lutheran Intern-Pastor, Mandy France said she quickly realized the town was much less diverse than her native Apple Valley.
"I saw a need for people to become educated on another world religion other than Christianity, and that's where my internship project stemmed from," France said.
She decided to do a project, to invite the town to listen and ask questions.
"We are going to allow a Muslim family to stand up and speak the truth about their faith and dismantle all the misconceptions about the Islamic faith."
She didn't know if anyone would show up after some locals complained to police about the event.
But they did show up, about 400 people, or 27 percent of the town's population, showed up for an ask anything, blunt conversation.
Ayaz addressed the crowd, many of who are his patients.
"Do I look that intimidating? Eo I look like a terrorist?" he asked.
He explained the similarities in the Bible and the Quran, why some Muslim women wear headscarves, how murder is highly condemned in the faith and how extremists make up a tiny percent of their peaceful faith. Ayaz answered other questions, too.
It was sometimes tense, but always respectful in the end.
"I thought it was very informative and so did my friends who came with me," Dawn Pehrson, of Dawson, said.
Jessica Stolen said she enjoyed the almost two hour session.
"I really wanted to bring my children just to educate them on different cultures," Stolen said.
Stolen's son, whose soon to enter the military, said he learned a lot.
"I didn't like them…because those are the people I'm going to be fighting. But now, you gotta love everybody," Ethan Stolen said.
Which is Intern Pastor Mandy's point exactly.
"Christ's command to love your neighbor, we follow that," she said.
Her end goal, "Hopefully bring an end to Islamophobia within not only just the community but hopefully it spreads."
And if this small town gathering is any indication, it will
To read more questions, and Ayaz's answers, from the meeting, click here.
for more features.