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Uncle Ron

Ron Anderson, helping refugees.


In 2009, about 1,000 bleary-eyed refugees arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport, carrying the residue of past lives crammed into a suitcase. Within a day or two, many met “Uncle Ron.”

“All refugees know Uncle Ron. You give us smiles,” said one Iraqi woman in halting English. He also gave them furniture, appliances and kitchenware—even framed prints to adorn the bare, off-white walls of their new apartments.

For the past 12 years, Ron Anderson and a handful of volunteers from the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City have helped to re-settle Africans, Bosnians, Afghanis, Bhutanese and the like. Some of the new arrivals have spent years in tent camps; others have known hunger and fear; many have never seen snow.

Anderson backs his white van up to the door of a garage-size storage unit. He bought the big Dodge for camping in 1995, but he holds on to it for moving furniture. He unloads two tables purchased from Deseret Industries, while Nancy and Johanna clear space and remove cushions from a floral-print sofa. As they wrestle the couch into the van, he tells them what a great buy it was at $35. The threesome will deliver it to an Iraqi family who arrived the night before. Anderson tells the two 60-something women that teenagers in the family will help carry the sofa to the third-floor apartment. They all smile. The conversation shifts to a shortage of kitchen tables and chairs. It is not a new problem, but Anderson is optimistic. “The universe provides,” he says.

They move to an adjacent unit and raise the roll-up door. Inside are “the pretties,” the nice-to-have vases, pictures, tablecloths, clocks, lamps and bric-a-brac. Many of the storage shelves are empty. Demand has outstripped supply at the moment. Nancy chooses a frying pan. Johanna picks up a package of towels she has laundered and wrapped in a plastic bag. “Should we take these coffee mugs?” Nancy asks.

“No,” she answers, “Iraqis prefer the demitasse size.”

A half hour later, as they unload the van in the parking lot of an apartment complex on Highland Drive, a woman in a hijab walks by. “Hi, Ron,” she says brightly.

With a steady inflow of refugees into Salt Lake City, accommodations require many hours to arrange and furnish. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) finds apartments and provides new beds, while volunteer groups like the Unitarians work on household goods. Anderson, Andrea Globokar, Johanna Whiteman and others solicit donations, make weekly visits to second-hand stores, monitor Craigslist and muster for estate clearances and restaurant closures. In 2009, they loaded and unloaded trucks 317 times and fully furnished 70 apartments.

Anderson, a retired government-contracting officer, is fussy about the quality of the donated household goods. Globokar has a “mother standard.” That is to say, if you would not be willing to give a chair to your mother, then she deems it unsuitable for refugee families. “We want them to believe they deserve nice stuff,” Anderson says.

He also bypasses sleeper sofas because they are too heavy for aging Unitarians to lug up three flights of stairs.

The law of supply and demand makes television sets and digital-converters scarce. Anderson laughs when recalling a Sudanese woman who asked for a TV. He told her it would take time to find one. She was nonplussed. “But this is America!” she said.

The IRC, the lead agency in resettlement, says it takes two years for an immigrant family to find its footing in Utah. First Unitarian is just one of many organizations that provide material assistance year after year. Catholic Relief Services, the LDS Church and others work outside of the limelight on the refugees’ behalf. But Uncle Ron goes the extra mile. He offers friendship. Twelve years later, Uncle Ron is one of the city’s go-to guys when help is needed. While learning English is the immediate challenge for refugees, they can be tripped up by such mundane matters as bank accounts, driver’s licenses, dentist appointments, telephone and utility accounts. Anderson has helped them navigate bureaucracies and unravel snarls of red tape. He has been an advocate when necessary and assisted in times of crisis.

He has also devoted countless hours to the newcomers’ most urgent concern—finding a job. Nowadays, job applications are often online, and even some entry-level positions require completion of a lengthy personality questionnaire. The process itself is daunting even for those whose English is pretty good and are able to use one of the public library’s computers.

“There is no greater thrill than getting a job for a person who is in desperate circumstances,” the soft-spoken Anderson says.

After more than a decade of work, Anderson says he would be happy to relinquish the lead role in which he now finds himself. But until someone steps forward to take his place, he will persevere, he says. “What else would I do? Watch TV?” Nevertheless, at age 73, he knows his days of carrying sofas are numbered. “I’ll quit when my van and my knees give out,” he says with a smile.

In the meantime, the Unitarian volunteers need new donors. The stock of sofas, tables, chairs, lamps, and other household goods is at an all-time low even as refugees continue to arrive apace. Those with stuff to donate are asked call Andrea Globokar at 801-518-746, IRC at 801-328-1091 or Uncle Ron at 801-486-3930.