Memories of Afghan children, gaunt and pale with cancer, still haunt Ehsan Bayat.


Even now, all these miles and all these years removed from the Kabul hospital ward, thoughts of them bring tears to his eyes.

What they remind him, what they continue to teach Bayat is the never-ending, extreme need in Afghanistan, where fighting between government forces and the Taliban often devastates civilian communities.

Those children suffered without pain medication, without treatment, Bayat said. Doctors begged him and his wife, Fatema, to supply medicine to the children’s cancer ward. He knows situations like that — or even worse in the suburbs and provinces outside Afghanistan’s capital city — are not uncommon.

But, the Bayats have done more than just provide medicine. Ehsan and Fatema Bayat, who live in Ponte Vedra, have built or refurbished 13 maternity hospitals throughout Afghanistan, providing medical care to more than 2 million women and children.

They don’t do it alone.

More than a decade ago, the Bayats established a foundation to “nourish the lives of Afghans,” and so doctors in Afghanistan now recognize just whom they are asking when they seek more medicine, more supplies or more equipment.

The foundation also built schools, supplied clean drinking water to isolated areas, and has given clothing, food and blankets to people in need.

Now, it has sights set on building a maternity and surgical hospital to assist in childbirth and any complications arising from delivery. The center will also diagnose cervical and breast cancer, as well as correct obstetric fistulas, a common problem Afghan women face after giving birth. The facility will be the 14th hospital the Bayat Foundation has built and it has been in the planning stages for approximately two years.

The state-of-the-art facility in Kabul is finally coming to fruition.

“There’s a need for this. Some cities have very little help,” Fatema Bayat said. “We want to be a voice of hope. We want to keep Afghanistan relevant.”

According to the Afghanistan Ministry of Public Health, more than 50 percent of pregnant women do not have access to essential health services and more than 50 percent of the births take place without nursing facilities. As a result, both women and infants lose their lives. The country had the second highest infant mortality rate in the world in 2015 and has seen an increasing amount of women die during childbirth. With proper access to health care, these deaths are preventable.

So this Friday, The Bayat Foundation plans to hold the “Nourish so They May Flourish” fundraising gala at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club.

“Serving Afghans has been, and always will be, the heart of our mission,” Fatema Bayat said. “The funds we raise from the gala will help expand the foundation’s efforts to improve the quality of life for Afghan families.”

The event will highlight the contributions made by the foundation toward improving the health, literacy and economic development of Afghan families — and as the Afghanistan’s largest, private nonprofit dedicated to health and education, there have been many. Mostly, however, the gala will foster partnerships between the Bayat Foundation and several organizations helping in the construction of the new maternity hospital, as well as raise money for the project.

“Every little bit here means a lot on the other side,” Ehsan Bayat said. “There’s no boundary for when you want to do something for someone who is really in need, but in Afghanistan, there’s so much need.”

As a child, Ehsan Bayat lived in Afghanistan. There, his father ran an import-export business and young Ehsan attended a private school. But, communists imprisoned his father during a 1978 revolt that overthrew the Afghanistan republic. A year later, when the Soviet Union invaded, they released his father. The family fled the country.

Ehsan Bayat was 18. It was 1981 and he found himself in New York City with nothing but his dedicated, determined attitude. After a friend told him about the First Coast, Ehsan Bayat moved to Ponte Vedra with his wife and three daughters. He now owns several successful businesses, including the first and largest mobile phone company in Afghanistan.

“We take things for granted here,” Ehsan Bayat said. “You appreciate what god has given you — so why not give some back?”

Over the last 11 years, the Bayat Foundation has completed approximately 300 projects, including a partnership with the Starkey Hearing Foundation to provide hearing aids to 5,000 Afghan men and women. They’ve built or refurbished countless schools; constructed dormitories, gymnasiums and sports fields; and clothed and fed orphanages. Millions of books have been distributed throughout Afghanistan by the Bayats. In 2002, fewer than 800,000 children attended school and the vast majority of those were male students.

Now, females are allowed, in some cases, to acquire an education. While the education system still needs aid, more than 9 million children are now enrolled in schools. An estimated 39 percent are female, according to World Education News and Reviews. The organization does say data out of Afghanistan could be misleading, as it calculates students both present and absent. It acknowledges many children are enrolled, but not attending.

“We have real emphasis on improvement and knowledge,” Ehsan Bayat said. “You help build a person — and then, millions of people together can change the country.”

That, he said, is the goal of the Bayat Foundation.


Amanda Williamson: (904) 359-4665