Beloved Muslim community advocate who died of COVID-19 touched thousands with spirit of kindness

A tireless volunteer, a beloved teacher, and to many more simply “Babu Uncle” — members of Muslim communities in Toronto and Halifax are grieving the loss of Husain Bhayat, a man defined by his dedication to humanitarian causes and his kind, always-smiling eyes.

Husain Bhayat, 83, made it his 'mission' to support humanitarian causes in Canada and abroad

Husain Bhayat, who died Monday of COVID-19 at Missisauga's Credit Valley Hospital, is being remembered as a tireless volunteer, beloved teacher and part of the bedrock of his community in Toronto and Halifax. (Muhammad Iqbal Bhayat/Facebook)

A tireless volunteer, a beloved teacher, and to many more simply "Babu Uncle" — members of  Muslim communities in Toronto and Halifax are grieving the loss of Husain Bhayat, a man being remembered as part of the bedrock of the community, defined by his dedication to humanitarian causes and his kind, always-smiling eyes.

Bhayat died Monday of COVID-19 at Missisauga's Credit Valley Hospital — his son and daughter, Muhammad and Zarina, unable to hold his hand in his final moments because of the no-visitors policies necessitated by the virus.

"You were not allowed to touch him at all. There was no kind of affectionate goodbye or even just hanging on to his hand," Zarina told CBC News.

"He was unconscious, but to not even be able to hold onto his hand in the last minutes… It was just very difficult."

Bhayat, 83, first started experiencing a fever and cough around March 23. Five days later came the news his family hoped they would never hear: He had tested positive for the virus. Bhayat was admitted to the hospital the same day and put on a ventilator three days later.

Just before, Zarina had a chance to speak with her father for the final time while he was still conscious.

"His main concern at the end of that conversation was really to give all his love to the grandchildren," she said. ""I think he was a little afraid but he was always in good spirits; that was just his personality."

A goodbye from afar

When things took a turn for the worse, the hospital called and said they would allow two visitors. The family decided Zarina and their mother would go and be with Bhayat.

Donning gowns, masks and gloves, Zarina and her mother had to remain at a distance as Bhayat slipped away. Muhammad sat outside in the hospital's parking lot on Facetime with his sister inside as they bid their father goodbye.

Muhammad Iqbal Bhayat, left, and Zarina Bhayat, right, are pictured with their father, Husain Bhayat, and mother. (Muhammad Iqbal Bhayat/Facebook)

Bhayat was a constant presence at religious functions, community events, weddings and funerals. But because of the pandemic, those who knew and loved him were forced to remain physically separate for his own funeral prayers.

Instead of the thousands who would have turned out to the mosque to honour him in ordinary circumstances, approximately 100 friends and loved ones from across Canada, the United States, South Africa and India gathered virtually for an online funeral ceremony.

They shared their grief and stories, and comforted one another through their screens —even managing a laugh or two when someone would push the wrong button or forget to unmute their mic.

For his children, it was a surreal experience — their grief mediated through technology and laptop screens.

As a child, Muhammad recalled his father would insist he come with him to just about every funeral. "I'd say, 'I don't even know who that person is,' and he'd say, 'No, we have to go pay our respects."

'A place of love'

COVID-19 got in the way of all of that. Rather than undergoing the ceremonial washing and funeral preparations, Bhayat's body was released directly to the funeral home and taken straight to the cemetery.

Just 10 people were allowed to attend his burial. But having touched as many lives as he did, Muhammad said community members insisted they be able to participate. So the decision was made to livestream the burial online, where it was viewed by thousands.

In death, as in life, Bhayat was "a light," said Shireen Ahmed, a writer and sports activist who grew up in Halifax and now calls Toronto home. 

As a child, Ahmed knew Bhayat as the owner of one of Halifax's first Indian grocery stores, where the smells of turmeric and cilantro "coupled with his beautiful grin were a staple" of her childhood.

"Babu Uncle" always set aside a few packs of her favourite double-chocolate cookies when they were shipped from South Asia — that's just the kind of man he was, she recalled.

"That store was a place of love, nourishment of our identities, and affirmation of our community bond," Ahmed wrote in a moving tribute to Bhayat on Twitter.

"When you come from a small immigrant community, these elders are all your parents. They are pillars of your life. They float in your memories, and stay embedded in your lived experience. And you miss them so much it hurts."

'You only live once'

Born in 1937 in India while it was under British rule, Bhayat was the first in his family to receive a college education. But he wanted more opportunity for his children, and immigrated to Canada in the 1960s, settling in Nova Scotia, where he spent some four decades as a public school teacher.

After retiring, Bhayat moved to Mississauga, where he dedicated himself to building up the community. Human Concern International, Jame Masjid, the International Development and Relief Foundation (IDRF) and American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin were just some of the institutions to which Bhayat dedicated his energy and time.

Muhammad and Zarina say they're still learning just how many causes he was involved with as people share stories about their father.

Born in 1937 in India, Bhayat, was the first in his family to receive a college education. But he wanted more opportunity for his children, and immigrated to Canada in the 1960s, settling in Nova Scotia. (Muhammad Iqbal Bhayat/Facebook)

"It was his mission and I will tell you, it energized him," said Muhammad. So much so, that when his children, by then grown, would call to talk to him, it was almost impossible to get hold of him.

"It was really a constant battle with us," Zarina said with a laugh. "We'd say, 'You need to rest.' And he'd say,  'No, you only live once and you have to make a difference and you have to help people.'"

Through his volunteer work, Bhayat touched the lives of people around the world, said an online tribute by IDRF, calling him an "indefatigable champion of charitable causes both in Canada and overseas. 

On its Facebook page, IDRF highlighted just some of Bhayat's volunteer work: fundraising for the William Osler Hospital in Brampton, health and education projects in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, clean water projects in the Middle East and Caribbean and sponsoring Syrian refugees to come to Canada. 

"All of us who had the pleasure of knowing him will deeply miss his wonderful personality, his courteous demeanour and his signature friendly smile," the tribute reads.

A legacy that will remain

Still, in these unusual circumstances, the novel coronavirus meant "a challenge on top of a challenge," for Bhayat's family. Relatives unable to be by his wife's side as she absorbs the reality of her loss, the familiar faces and customs so much a part of the grieving process all on hold.

Bhayat's wife, who was always in more frail health than her husband, is still trying to cope with her husband's sudden loss.

But though their father is no longer with them, Muhammad and Zarina say his lessons and example leave a legacy that will remain with them forever.

Bhayat, recalled Zarina, was always asking her to be more involved in his charity work. With a full-time job and a child, she would tell him, she just didn't have the time.

"And now when I'm looking at how he was helping over 70 charities, I can understand why he couldn't understand me," she said. 

It was the same for Muhammad.

"Things that he would do that would exhaust me just energized him," he said with a smile.

"What would really honour his memory and what he would love is if this inspires other people to go out and do the same."


Shanifa Nasser

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shanifa Nasser is an award-winning journalist interested in national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. Her work has led to two investigations by CBC's The Fifth Estate. She was previously a Munk Journalism Fellow and holds an MA in Islamic Studies from the University of Toronto.