P.J. Parmar has just struck out with a 76-year-old Congolese grandmother. The 46-year-old family physician has been providing health care to Colorado’s resettled refugees for more than ten years and has cultivated a high degree of trust. But not today, not with this grandmother.
“I told her, ‘Corona vaccine, right here, right now,’” Parmar laments. There are dark circles under his eyes, over a mask that’s hanging by a thread. “Couldn’t talk her into it. Maybe next time.”
The “right here, right now” COVID-19 vaccine is at Aurora’s Mango House, a former JC Penney store turned community space that offers refugees and asylum-seekers medical and dental services, retail space for local immigrant businesses, and a highly regarded food hall serving a taste of faraway homes, including dishes from Burma, Sudan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Syria and Nepal.
When the food at Mango House isn’t getting attention, Parmar is. And the location itself, at 10180 East Colfax Avenue, attracts plenty of unwanted activity. “I can’t tell you how many windows have been shot out,” sighs Parmar. “But that’s not because of us. That’s just Colfax.”
But the center’s focus on immigrants — a large number of them Muslim — has drawn its own share of hate. In 2017, a newly inaugurated President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from many Muslim majority nations. That same week, two threatening notes were left at Mango House, then located just off Colfax at 1532 Galena Street, including this: “WERE GONNA BLOW UP ALL OF YOU REFUGEES!” Police swept the building after the all-caps threat, but business went on as usual.
Then there was that problem with the cop. On March 1, 2020, Aurora Police Officer Justin Henderson was parked in front of the Galena Street garage. By that time, Mango House had moved to Colfax, but Parmar still had the building, and when he drove up with a load of gear and saw the squad car, he honked at the officer to move. Subsequent videos show Henderson, who is white, swearing and pointing a gun at Parmar’s head and demanding that he provide proof of owning the building. Just as the death of Elijah McClain after an encounter with Aurora police the previous August gained attention in the wake of the George Floyd protests, so did the APD’s stop of Parmar. After an investigation, Henderson was suspended for forty hours.
Parmar, who is Indian-American, believes the incident was escalated by race. “If I had been Black, it would have gone worse, unfortunately,” he told NBC News. “For better or worse, I’m in that sweet spot where I’m light-skinned enough to not be dead. But I’m dark-skinned enough to have had an incident which I know [had] a race component to it.”
Parmar has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Aurora and Henderson. “The officer was disciplined...suspended for forty hours. Even though they disciplined him, [the City of Aurora] won’t settle the case,” says David Lane, the civil rights powerhouse who is Parmar’s attorney. “Which is fine...it’s all on video. If they want their day in court, I’m happy to hold the courthouse doors open for them.”
Aurora declined to comment on the case, citing ongoing litigation.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Parmar’s personal experiences with race and immigration have made him sensitive — and qualified — to fight for others. The son of physicians who emigrated from India, he was born in Canada and moved to the Chicago area with his family when he was one. He recounts a childhood of bullying and racism, of harassment in hallways and hearing his Sikh grandfather, who lived with the family for five years, mocked as a “towelhead” when he walked Parmar to school.
Scouting offered a lifeline. “Boy Scouts, to me, was a place of acceptance,” Parmar says. It brought him friends and, during summer breaks from college at the University of Illinois, introduced him to the mountains when he worked at New Mexico’s Philmont Scout Ranch. After getting a master’s in environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, Parmar moved to Colorado in 1999 before attending the University of Colorado Medical School.
One of those scouting friends is Avery Kong. Kong, an emergency-medicine physician at Longmont United Hospital, met Parmar when they were both scouts in the Chicago area; he roomed with Parmar at the University of Illinois, and also worked at Philmont. “I moved out here in 2014, and we were hiking,” recounts Kong. “I’d been active in college, and after that, since I don’t have children, I stopped doing scouting activities. P.J. said, ‘Hey, let’s start a Boy Scout troop,’ and I had no reservations: ‘That sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it.’”
That hike was the beginning of Troop 1532, an all-refugee band of boys from around the globe, including Nepal, Malaysia and Tanzania. Although no longer serving as official scoutmaster, Parmar still supports the troop financially and occasionally joins the group on camping trips. “We’re going to Pueblo Reservoir this weekend,” he says. “April can get really cold in the mountains, and it will be warmer down there.”
The troop travels with a huge duffel of gear, as many of the scouts don’t have the warm clothes needed for Colorado’s ever-changing conditions. “We’ve got fleece and rain gear, and lots of hats, gloves and socks,” laughs Parmar. “I’ll come home and wash the socks.”
When the Boy Scouts of America announced in 2017 that girls would be welcome in their coed Venturing program, Parmar was excited, because it seemed to fit with the “equity and equality” focus of Mango House. “Gender equality is a big piece of what we do,” he notes.
But after his initial optimism, he found that it was difficult to get girls involved. “Girls are a harder catch,” says Parmar, “because they’re expected to have domestic responsibilities at young ages. … We often have nobody show up. Any traction we had [with girls] was lost with COVID.”
Michelle “Shelly” Martin isn’t giving up on the girls, though; the data analyst and University of Colorado Denver grad student has been a scout leader with the Venturing troop for almost three years. “Even prior to COVID, the expectations for girls were really different,” she says. “In the past, we’ve had girls really eager to go on hikes and camping. Then a few days before, they’ll say, ‘My brother won’t let me, my grandmother won’t give permission, I have too much homework.’ I’m still really proud of them! And when school is over and COVID is on the way out, we’ll keep giving them the opportunity. If it takes a little while for their families to be as comfortable with the girls participating as easily as the boys, that’s okay. I think we’ll get there.”
Refugee parents — many traumatized, a fair number undocumented — don’t just turn over their children to a scouting stranger lightly. Fortunately, Parmar also has experience in the homes they left, having traveled across a good chunk of the globe. His travels were cheap and fast, as he eschewed five-star hotels for street food and rough sleeping across five continents. In his self-published 2003 book 101 Countries: Discovering the World Through Fast Travel, he tells of run-ins with authorities (bribes helped) in places from Siberia to Scandinavia, Krakow to Cambodia.
“That worldly perspective helps him here,” says Kong. “I think, based on his travels, P.J. knows what it’s like to feel lost and underserved in many aspects: jobs, medicine, religion, food, housing. He understands what these individuals are going through when they immigrate to the U.S.”
Parmar didn’t splurge on travel, and he hasn’t splurged on life here in Colorado. At an age when some physicians are trading in spouses and buying $4,000 espresso machines, he drives an old Chevy Volt and lives in the same Lakewood townhouse he purchased 22 years ago. After completing his residency in 2012, that frugality allowed him to open a private practice for around $11,000. He recalls purchasing office furniture from Craigslist and buying pizza for friends who helped paint, encouraging other doctors to do the same instead of taking on a hundred thousand dollars or more in post-student loans.
He first put his practice in a space on Leetsdale Drive, near the African Community Center, another group serving refugees. When his lease wasn’t renewed two years later, Parmar purchased the property on Galena and founded Mango House. “I wanted a fun, attractive name, not ‘so-and-so organization,’” he explains. “Mangoes come from many of the places that our refugees come from...but do not come from America.”
When the former JC Penney site became available, Parmar decided to make a move. “It’s four times as big — much more opportunity to do more,” he says. “I didn’t think I could take on the much bigger building by myself, with no tenants at first, so I made the decision to move because Project Worthmore said they would move with me. They were a tenant at 1532 Galena and provided social services and dentistry. But after I’d committed to the new building, they changed their mind. So I ended up having to take it on with no guaranteed tenants. That ended up not being a big deal, as we quickly filled up with refugee businesses. I even started our own dental clinic because theirs wasn’t moving in.” (Founder and executive director Frank Anello confirms that Project Worthmore had space at the Galena location, but declines further comment.)
The Galena building now serves as a gear room for Scout Troop 1532 and a bike repair shop for underserved kids. It’s also home to seven church groups whose religions range from Islam to Christianity to Kirat Mundum, the indigenous faith of the Kirati people of Nepal and India.
Parmar’s medical clinic remains central to Mango House, and the business model powering Ardas Family Medicine is unique. In line with his goal of catering to Colorado’s resettled refugee population, Parmar accepts only Medicaid. This is not a posh practice offering chilled Evian and new issues of Town & Country. There are no appointments.
Fixed appointments create barriers to health care for poor people, and Parmar is committed to removing them. “People have to come on that day, at that time,” says Parmar. “But these folks, they don’t work white-collar 9-to-5s. Meatpacking shifts, odd hours. They might not be able to get there at that time or maybe not even just because of work, but because of some family issue, the car broke, whatever.”
He’s advocated for removing these barriers to health care for years, through TED talks and articles, and built a financially successful practice that serves the community through word of mouth. Ardas Family Practice and Mango House aren’t nonprofits, and they don’t accept donations. People show up at the center (often with family members to translate) and are seen in the order they arrive.
The system worked well, and wait times were often shorter than at traditional practices.
And then COVID arrived.
Fighting the Pandemic
The virus raced through Aurora, devastating many of the families who come through Mango House. The center is located in the 80010 zip code, the poorest in the metro area; with poverty comes overcrowded, often multi-generational living situations, and most low-wage earners lack the luxury of working remotely. Arapahoe County, which includes this part of Aurora, became the first in Colorado to have more than 100 deaths related to COVID-19. The nearby ICE immigrant detention center was an early outbreak site.
“Our positivity rates were 50 percent some days,” says Parmar. “Poor people and people of color were hit first and hardest.” The clinic struggled to test and educate, hoping along with the rest of the nation for help in the form of a vaccine.
When the much-anticipated shots arrived, Parmar followed the state’s guidelines to offer vaccinations to anyone who qualified, knowing that his walk-in clinic was going to be overwhelmed and that none of Colorado’s other sites were vaccinating people without an appointment. “Zero appointments — that’s attractive to everyone. I don’t care if you’re from Highlands Ranch or Cherry Hills Village. If you can because you’re the right age, or you can roll your mom or your grandma right on in, get it done and go, of course that’s very attractive,” he says. “But I never created the whole walk-in concept for everybody. We don’t have the capacity. I’m not talking about the number of doses capacity that the state is sending us; I’m talking about the other infrastructure — space, tables, volunteers. Immediately, give it a week, you can’t just roll right up anymore. We don’t even have the proper number of parking spaces.”
When vaccines became available at the clinic on January 25, calls came in so fast that the staff could do little more than answer the phone.
“One person came in and got it, and they must have told 45 of their friends,” Parmar says. “Bam, we were getting calls nonstop from people who were way out; 100 percent white; if I had to guess, 100 percent richer; and 0 percent having anything to do with our neighborhood or our clinic — no people of color. And suddenly my staff, we couldn’t do our own medical clinic work, and we couldn’t target our area.”
The clinic found its underserved local community pushed aside, displaced by people with more resources.
“The richer you are, the more control you have over your life,” says Parmar. “Your grandpa’s not as sick, your kids aren’t as sick, your car actually works when you start it, you actually have a car, and you can drive to a place at the actual time. ... You can actually know about the event and make the appointment at it, whether through the internet or phone. That’s a lot of steps from A to B, and that’s why I’ve always done medicine the way I do, which is no appointments.”
Overrun, Parmar threw away the state’s distribution rules, trying to accommodate walk-ins for locals and making appointments for people outside the 80010 zip code. “And that still displaced our work. ... We filled up two or three months out and were answering nonstop calls,” he remembers. “We’re not doing underserved medicine anymore, because the state has basically forced us to vaccinate rich white people.”
Frustrated, he began requiring IDs for walk-ins and putting others on a wait list. “Now, we didn’t actually turn away anybody with no ID,” he explains. “We are doing undocumented folks, homeless folks. Some of them sleep on my property, either here or across the street. So we went back to the previous game. We’ll make you an appointment. I’ll put you on our wait list, for anybody. But if you’re from the area, I’m going to give you a hand up.”
The concept of health justice has driven Parmar for years. “Equality is not equity, and equity is not justice,” he notes, describing a graphic showing three people trying to watch a ballgame from behind a high fence. “Give everyone the same ladder, and some people still won’t be able to see.”
But prioritizing the local community did not sit well with the State of Colorado. A National Guard member working with the state’s vaccine efforts instructed Parmar via email that if the clinic was doing walk-in vaccines for one group, it must do them for everyone. “I said, if I have to do walk-ins for everybody, at that point they really do need to send in the National Guard,” Parmar recalls. He posted a screenshot of the message on the Mango House Facebook page.
It read, in part: The Governor has directed that providers remove barriers to vaccine access for eligible Coloradans.
The post earned Parmar an irate phone call from Rick Palacio, strategic consultant to Governor Jared Polis. “He was livid,” recalls Parmar, “literally screaming at me. Not about vaccines: He was livid that the screenshot included her cell phone at the bottom. I hadn’t realized that, and said I’d remove it.”
He also wanted the woman’s name taken away, telling Parmar that the National Guard member, “a young lady serving her country,” was “so ashamed,” Parmar says. “I said, ‘Who cares if she’s a young lady? She’s a public servant, this is a public conversation. She’s doing her job. Why is there shame?’ He didn’t want to talk about the vaccine problem — just the optics,” Parmar says.” He deleted the post, replacing it with a screenshot of an email from Palacio:
It is not allowable for you to offer vaccines exclusively to the residents of a single zip code. If you amend your efforts to target residents of a certain area, but don’t restrict access to others, that is an acceptable practice.
Additionally, it is not permissible for your clinic to require that an ID or proof of residency be presented in order to receive a vaccine. Identification and proof of residency are barriers to access to many Coloradans, and disproportionately affect those in our immigrant communities and Coloradans without a home. We...look forward to confirmation that your clinic has removed the barriers to access that are outlined above.
Although Parmar describes himself as “never having been a task-force person,” Colorado’s Vaccine Equity Taskforce had his back. The coalition of doctors, pastors, community organizers and public-health officials was formed to provide outreach and information, particularly to underserved communities across the state.
“We should all support Mango House’s efforts to vaccinate Coloradans who have the hardest time connecting with the health-care resources they need. That is clearly Dr. Parmar’s intention. His efforts to serve his community and the larger immigrant community should be commended,” says spokesperson Michele Ames.“While we certainly understand the state’s interest in ensuring fair access to vaccines, it must also be acknowledged that the health-care system itself is inequitable for many communities. Clinics like Mango House are trusted resources in their community, and barriers to their ability to serve their community must be removed if we are to provide needed vaccinations to all Coloradans.”
The governor’s office declined to make Palacio available for comment on the incident.
The Fight Goes On
It’s Friday night, and Mango House is still going. Outside, the “COVID VACCINE HERE!” banners have been removed. The day after Parmar scaled the trees in front of the building to hang them, Aurora advised that the signs’ presence violated an ordinance regulation in the city’s pedestrian district. Parmer took them down a few days before the deadline. “The word is out,” he explains. “They aren’t needed anymore.”
Inside Mango House, the clinic has closed, but a number of people are enjoying conversation over the curry and kabobs coming from the six food stalls. Flags from different nations flutter from the ceiling. On the second floor, overlooking the food hall, some retail shops have lined the mezzanine with racks of colorful clothing. The air is scented with rich spices and serenaded with low Syrian pop music. All of the staff and every patron who’s not seated at a table is wearing a properly fitted mask.
Parmar is in his trademark khakis and Columbia fleece; impossibly, his mask seems even more tattered. He and his team have administered 180 vaccines today, and he’ll be here most of the night to oversee a crew coming in to clean the range hoods in the food stalls. He’s spent part of his day on Zoom, watching Officer Henderson’s deposition in the ongoing civil rights lawsuit.
Twenty-five new retail spots are almost completed on the third floor, and there’s a waiting list of tenants ready to set up shop, joining the grocers, the tailors, the jeweler and other businesses offering services such as tax preparation. A few of the shops overlap merchandise, carrying some of the same clothing and beauty products.
But each caters to the members of its community, in their own language.
Kadir Wado was a member of the Oromo Liberation Front in his native Ethiopia and spent thirteen years in Kenyan refugee camps before immigrating to New York in 2005. In 2014, he and his family moved to Denver to be part of a larger Ethiopian community. He drove a taxi to support his five children (the oldest are in college, the youngest in first grade). When COVID slowed his stream of passengers, he opened KW Global Market at Mango House. The colorful space carries a hodgepodge of merchandise, from groceries to clothing to household goods. “The guy opened a business in the midst of a global pandemic,” says Parmar. “That takes a lot, and it’s going well.”
Mango House and Parmar will be the subject of an as-yet-untitled documentary slated to be released later this year. “He’s probably the most impressive individual I’ve met while living in Colorado,” says Ross Taylor, the filmmaker and an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. “He’s rare.”
Parmar may be rare, but he knows that every immigrant in this country has a story. He’d like to create a museum dedicated to the refugee experience, he says. If his case is settled, he talks about setting something aside for the families of other victims of Aurora’s police department and continuing to do more for the community.
“More,” he concludes. “In this community, there’s always more.”
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