COVID-19 takes Ralph Parker, 73, much-loved helper of Atlanta refugees

Ralph Parker (right) found a life outside his insurance business by helping refugees settling in Atlanta. In this 2006 photo, he shares a lunch snack with Rustam Ibragimov (left), Sanya Ibragimov (center), as Narviya Ibragimov (serving).  (JOEY IVANSCO/ AJC staff)
Ralph Parker (right) found a life outside his insurance business by helping refugees settling in Atlanta. In this 2006 photo, he shares a lunch snack with Rustam Ibragimov (left), Sanya Ibragimov (center), as Narviya Ibragimov (serving). (JOEY IVANSCO/ AJC staff)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Naing Oo let his curiosity get the better of him.

He and his family — Burmese Muslims fleeing political oppression — moved to Atlanta after 2000.

“We had rented a small apartment, and one day I heard a knock on the door. My parents told me not to open the door, because I’m a 10-year-old in a new country. I still kind of opened the door, and there stood Ralph with a box of Dunkin' Donuts.”

That embodied Ralph Parker, showing up in what some teasingly called his “grandpa outfit”— a polo shirt, shorts and knee-length socks — at a refugee family’s door for a get-acquainted session.

Parker grew up with a father who valued community service. Parker, a Marietta resident, combined that with a love of geography and culture to aid hundreds of beleaguered immigrants, the bulk of them in the Clarkston area. In the process, more than a few “adopted'” him.

Parker, 73, died Oct. 13 of complications due to COVID-19. He’s survived by his wife Rona and children Jamie Parker, Brittany Davidson and her husband, Andrew, and four grandchildren. Family members said a memorial service may occur later.

The Boston native wanted to be a social studies or geography teacher, but his father steered him toward business school. He forged a career in the insurance industry that led him to Atlanta in 1979.

His wife Rona thinks a Thanksgiving project through work kindled his interest in helping immigrants.

In this 2006 photo, Ralph Parker gives Ei Myat Noe, a birthday gift. Ralph, a Cobb County resident, found a calling in life helping refugee families who came to Atlanta from around the world, many fleeing wars and persecution. He delivered donated clothes, taught them to drive, showed them the grocery store and generally explained to them everyday life in the U.S. (JOEY IVANSCO/ AJC staff)
In this 2006 photo, Ralph Parker gives Ei Myat Noe, a birthday gift. Ralph, a Cobb County resident, found a calling in life helping refugee families who came to Atlanta from around the world, many fleeing wars and persecution. He delivered donated clothes, taught them to drive, showed them the grocery store and generally explained to them everyday life in the U.S. (JOEY IVANSCO/ AJC staff)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

“He decided that it would be great to bring in food for people less fortunate. He and I went together with some people from his office. He got names and addresses from the World Relief group. We went around to different families, and from that we made some wonderful friendships,” she said.

Parker then began working with Bosnian refugees fleeing the 1990s war, and moved on to help those who left Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and other trouble spots. He and Rona worked through such agencies as Sewa, a Hindu faith-based international humanitarian group and Catholic Charities.

“The insurance career was his job, but this became his passion,” said daughter Brittany.

He coordinated food and blanket drives, helped adults get jobs and tutored children in math and English. Parker went to bat for families trapped in shabby apartments and facing rent disputes. He helped refugees decipher the complexities of America, everything from making sense of incomprehensible notices arriving in the mail to helping register kids for school.

And there were social occasions, as Parker took the newcomers to Stone Mountain and other spots.

He also could segue into an advisory role. Oo said Parker served as “a mentor and sounding board at different stages in my life.”

"At one point I was in New York (working for a non-profit) and in that world it’s hard to make money. So I wanted to go into real estate or sales, things like that. He challenged me…he kind of reminded me of who I am and what I’m good at, " he said.

Oo is now the program director at the nonprofit Georgia Muslim Voter Project.

Swadesh Katoch, a Sewa volunteer, teamed up with Parker in 2008 as aid groups learned that some 60,000 Bhutanese Nepali would be coming to the U.S., some settling in Clarkston. The Nepalese faced discrimination in Bhutan, with many deported and forced into squalid camps in Nepal.

Parker developed a special affinity for them because they, like him, held family in high regard. He co-founded the National Bhutanese Refugee Empowerment Project.

Katoch said the Bhutanese refugees and Parker became close; Parker would point out their kids and say, "He’s my grandson and she’s my granddaughter. "

Rona Parker said when they visited a family “the minute the kids saw us they’d run up and say ‘Hey Uncle Ralph, Aunt Rona’. They loved every minute we were there. Ralph would be really goofy and pretend he was a zombie and chase them all over the house, and they loved it.”

He retired from the insurance industry in 2012 and deepened his involvement with the refugee community.

“It’s not easy to leave your personal family, wife and children, and go to people who really need your help,” said Sewa Atlanta coordinator Vikas Arora.

But Parker did.

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