Twenty Years Resettling Refugees

by John Rasmuson

In the beginning—before the dark days of the Trump Era and the COVID-19 pandemic—there was Bob Kron’s “big white truck.” And the Proctor’s and the Mildenhall’s garages. And the collaboration of Globokar and Anderson.

It was the 1990s, as Harry Potter struck gold in bookstores around the world. First Church was running a tutoring program at the Edison Elementary School in Salt Lake City’s Poplar Grove neighborhood, Andrea Globokar recalled. “I learned that many of the students had no beds.”  She rallied the Unitarian congregation, and the “big white truck” soon began to deliver donated beds to the apartment complexes along Redwood Road favored by undocumented immigrants.

Richard Anderton and Andrea Globokar with bags of donated winter coats.

Ron Anderson had connected with the Bosnian refugee community while tutoring at the Edison School. He was providing second-hand furniture through word-of-mouth referrals. Ron and Andrea decided to join forces and create the Household Goods Donation Program at First Church. The deliveries increased apace, with some of the furniture going to Bosnians who had been resettled by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s.

(The IRC, founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, works under the auspices of the U.S. Government to resettle people displaced from their homes by either conflict or natural disaster. Salt Lake City is one of 26 places in the U.S. where the IRC operates. The Utah office opened in 1994.)

According the 2004-2005 annual report, 1,048 volunteer hours were devoted to providing household items and clothing to Edison School families, IRC clients, and the African Community Daycare Center. “It is truly an enriching experience to meet the families of Edison School, African American Daycare Center and the IRC and to provide support as they strive to improve their lives and the lives of their children,” read the report. (Frank and Vickie Steffey collected clothing and toys for the families for three years.)

A change of principals at the Edison School brought new rules for volunteer tutors, and finding them untenable, the Unitarians moved to a different, west-side elementary school, Mountain View. Louise Ewing and Judy Smith spearheaded a group of 15-to-20 volunteer tutors there for the next five years. The diverse Mountain View community also received household goods—26 truckloads in 2005.  The 2005-2006 annual report read: “Many Mountain View School families have few, if any, resources to support them. The Household Goods Donation Program is often their only resource for furniture, household goods and children’s clothing.”

Ron and Andrea began to meet regularly with the small IRC staff, and it wasn’t long until they were devoting some part of every day attending to refugee needs. Those needs were exigent and open-ended—and remained so in 2018 as the world contended with 69 million, forcibly displaced people. Families arrived at the Salt Lake City airport bleary-eyed, carrying the residue of past lives stuffed in suitcases. Some had spent years in tent camps; others had known hunger and fear (but not snow!); many spoke no English. All needed a place to live.

Anderson (left) and Richard Anderton unloading Richard’s trailer at an apartment set-up.

The IRC rented an apartment or house for each refugee family, and the Unitarians furnished it with second-hand furniture and household goods. In practical terms that meant donations had to be solicited, picked up, moved to storage, then trucked to the apartment and lugged up narrow, switchbacking stairs. The Unitarians, sexagenarians in the main, soon learned sofa-beds and recliners were too heavy for them. They also declined donations that fell short of a “mother standard,” to wit: if you wouldn’t give it to your mother, it isn’t good enough for refugees.

The IRC had one or two rules of its own: A place for every family member to sit in the living room and at the kitchen table and no second-hand beds. (The L.D.S. Church and Ikea had agreed to provide the IRC with new beds.) Over time, the IRC added to its rulebook as its staff expanded to 70, including interns and AmeriCorps volunteers. “It became more businesslike,” Andrea said.

New beds and other changes made the apartments more welcoming. “We started staging apartments in 2012,” said Johanna Whiteman, who was a mainstay on the committee from 2005 to 2018. Bric-a-brac, framed prints, rugs, color-coordinated furnishings, toys for the kids—the staged apartments were nothing if not homey. This photo shows one in November, 2012:

In the years before Donald Trump’s election, refugees arrived in Salt Lake City at a rate of a family a week on average. However, in 2002 the Unitarians accommodated 110 people in furnished apartments in a single month, Ron remembered. “It was a lot of work.” In 2009, they loaded and unloaded trucks 317 times and furnished 70 apartments.

Nancy Rasmuson (left) and Andrea Globokar organize one of IRC’s eight storage units, a recurring task.

The timing of the deliveries was consequential. The Unitarians arrived with a load of furniture a day or two after the refugees had landed in Salt Lake City. The brief conversations on delivery day often led to a years-long, mentoring relationship—and to lasting friendships. Ron came to be known fondly as “Uncle Ron” in refugee enclaves.

It takes at least two years for refugees to find their footing in Utah, the IRC asserts. That’s because even the most mundane matter—bank accounts, driver’s licenses, school registration, and doctors’ appointments—can be daunting. First Church mentors have invested hundreds of hours in overcoming such obstacles and unsnarling red tape for the refugees. It is difficult work. The mentors have also been invaluable in finding jobs for them, especially in the wake of the 2008 Recession when entry-level employment was hard to come by. The Unitarians were hands-on advisors and advocates. Just being native speakers of English made a difference because some online job applications required fluency to complete personality questionnaires. “There is no greater thrill than getting a job for a person who is in desperate circumstances,” Ron said.

RRC Coordinator Joe DuBray (left) presents Ron Anderson with a “Best Friend to Refugees” award from City Weekly while Rev. Matthew Cockrum applauds.

On the organizational chart of the First Unitarian Church, the Household Goods Donation Program was located under the umbrella of the Social Justice Committee from the outset. An annual budget of about $600 was spent to buy furniture at Deseret Industries or the University of Utah Surplus and Salvage when donations of tables and chairs lagged demand. The “big white truck” was replaced over time by a small fleet: Ron’s 1996 Dodge van, Tom Price’s and Gary Widdison’s pick-ups, and Johanna’s VW microbus. A second wave brought Richard Anderton’s and Jim Wilcox’s big trailers into service along with Will Morris’ and Joe Herring’s trucks. Moving holdings to eight, IRC-contracted storage units emptied Unitarians’ garages of sofas, tables and chairs in 2007.

When Ron, nearing 75, decided to retire from lifting furniture, Joe DuBray took over in 2011 as coordinator of what became the Refugee Resettlement Committee (RRC). (It was officially chartered by the church in 2014.) The name change notwithstanding, the RRC’s autonomous affiliation with First Church’s Social Justice Committee remained unchanged. Joe’s tenure saw a 30-percent increase in the number of team leaders; the roster of “lifters” and other volunteers grow beyond 50; and the RRC establishing itself in a Utah humanitarian network that included Habitat ReStore, the Assistance League, the Utah Housing Authority, and other organizations. In an average year, RRC volunteers worked 900 hours and drove 10,000 miles. The IRC’s 2018 Annual Report recognized the RRC as one of the 35 organizations nationwide—the likes of Google, Amazon, L.D.S. Charities and Microsoft—for service to refugees.

Richard Anderton’s and Jim Wilcox’s trailers became the workhorses of a pick-up operation that reached from Lehi to Logan.

Jim Wilcox secures a load of chairs in his trailer at an Ogden pick-up.











The two men were also called upon to lead apartment set-up teams, install washers and driers, and make occasional repairs. On one holiday, Jim responded to a request from IRC to fix the mechanical problems in a refugee’s apartment. Richard died unexpectedly in 2019. His widow donated his big trailer to the IRC.


Bill Reed (left) and Jim Wilcox repair a pedestal table before an apartment set-up

Johanna published an 18-page handbook to standardize operations of what the IRC has called a model volunteer-support organization. In the handbook, which the IRC promoted to other organizations across the country, she wrote presciently: “The RRC is experienced, determined and innovative. The RRC has never failed.” The handbook was revised periodically to reflect evolving IRC policies. The changes—which included requirements for inventories, delivery reports, background checks, and mentor certification—were as unpopular as Postum in the coffee-loving Unitarian ranks. So was the IRC’s policy that apartment set-ups had to be finished before the refugees arrived in Salt Lake City, not after. The rule “precludes the opportunity to make a friend,” said Andrea.

Johanna Whiteman readies a bookcase for delivery at one of eight IRC storage units.

As the Trump Administration reduced the stream of refugees into Salt Lake City to a trickle, the RRC looked for new ways to engage the refugee community face-to-face and to provide opportunities for more First Church congregants to do the same. Johanna helmed a ”Welcome Basket” initiative. Laundry baskets were filled with $130 worth of household goods “requested by refugees and approved by the IRC” and funded by donors. Between June, 2017, and June, 2018, 22 baskets were delivered to recent arrivals. At IRC’s request, in-person deliveries were curtailed, and the welcome baskets were included in apartment set-ups until the program was terminated in late 2018.

Another initiative, Andrea’s “Pedal Project,” fell short of expectations, too. The Pedal Project reflected “a maturing understanding of what refugees need,” Andrea said. “They need a way to get to work.” She collected 66 used bicycles and secured helmets, locks, lights and safety vests. Volunteers refurbished the bikes, and she began to give them to refugees. Between July, 2017, and June, 2018, 19 adult bike packages were delivered and 22 for children. The IRC decided the Unitarians could continue to provide bikes, but the deliveries would be managed separately through the IRC’s caseworkers. Chad Mullins took over when Andrea retired.

Although not apparent at the time, the launch of the two initiatives was ill-timed. The 2016 election made it so. In June, 2016, the IRC honored the First Church RRC volunteers with a plaque that read: “In recognition and sincere appreciation for 20 years of service to the International Rescue Committee and the refugees we serve.” By then, however, immigration had been politicized by ugly nativism. The number of refugees admitted to the U.S. was reduced from 110,000 to 18,000, the lowest number since the program was created forty years before. Donald Trump’s election had the paradoxical effect of reducing the number of refugees arriving in Salt Lake City while increasing the number of volunteers eager to help them. Moreover, as the Unitarians sought the in-person access to refugees they were used to having—the “enriching experience” they enjoyed early on at Edison School—the IRC was struggling to manage every interaction between its vulnerable clients and a throng of new volunteers. “While we do offer over 20 different volunteer activities that ensure face-to-face contact and relationships with new Americans and newly arrived refugees, we do prescribe the interactions to ensure positive integration and forward motion to self-sufficiency,” explained the IRC. Giving gifts to refugees—considered “counterproductive” by the IRC—was actively discouraged.

The Trump Administration was of the same mind. On Sept. 26, 2019, the president signed an executive order giving state and local officials authority to stop refugee resettlement in their precincts. This on the heels of an executive order barring refugees from Muslim countries.

It was the COVID-19 pandemic that finally brought refugee resettlement to an abrupt halt in early 2020. The borders with Canada and Mexico were closed March 21, and IRC suspended the work of its “corps of humanitarians” in Salt Lake City about the same time. First Church, its doors closed against the insidious virus, moved its Sunday services online.

In the preceding nine months, according to the RRC’s 2019-2020 annual report, the Unitarians set up housing for more than 200 refugees (in 29 families.) RRC volunteers—then 38 strong—invested almost 600 hours in refugee-assistance work. Not long after Richard’s death in May, 2019, Joe had notified the IRC that the situation at First Church dictated that the RRC would be available for only one apartment set-up a week. (Johanna reflected that there was a time when they set up five or six apartments in a week.) A dearth of able-bodied, truck-owning, weekday lifters left Joe with no other option.

It was a painful decision to make because the need was so great. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, as the inflow of refugees to the U.S. was being curtailed by the Trump Administration, the world was witness to a refugee crisis as grave as that during World War II. Calling it a “tumultuous decade of displacement,” the United Nations estimated there were nearly 26 million refugees, half of whom were under the age of 18. The Trump Administration was unmoved. In 2018, it reduced the number of refugees resettled in Salt Lake City from 600 to 300 a year. The dramatic reduction caused the IRC to reduce staffing.

“We’re limping along,” Ron lamented.

Twenty-five years after Ron and Andrea launched the Household Goods Donation Program at the Edison Elementary School, Bob Kron and Richard Anderton are dead. Ron, Andrea, Johanna and Frank Globokar have retired from the RRC. The Tom Goldsmith Era at First Church draws to a close in 2021. Not even a Harry Potter crystal ball could foresee what changes would be imposed on First Church by COVID-19 and Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. It is clear, however, that the future will be unlike the past. In ordinary times, the end of the Goldsmith Era would have no effect on refugee work, but the RRC’s model of humanitarianism may prove to be unsustainable. The congregation is short on truck-owning people with weekdays free to heft sofas up stairways to third-floor apartments. It seems likely that the RRC will follow Jazz Vespers into the pages of this history. If so, the RRC leaves an impressive record. The long-running efforts of a committed, independent corps of Unitarian humanitarians resulted in more than 1,100 apartments being prepared for incoming refugee families from Burma, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and 25 other countries. By dint of assistance, advocacy, money and friendship, the Refugee Resettlement Committee of the First Unitarian Church has made good on the promise of America.


(From left to right) Jim Wilcox, Bill Reed and Will Morris wrestle a washing machine into place 

RRC Volunteers—Leaders:

Joe DuBray, Coordinator (since 2011)

Ron Anderson Emeritus

Team Leaders:

Richard Anderton,  Died in 2019

Andrea Globokar,  Emerita

Bonnie Baty

Johanna Whiteman, Emerita

Nancy Rasmuson

Jim Wilcox


Most of the RRC Volunteers—Lifters, bike tuners and mentors—over the years:

The lifters rest while the kitchen gets final touches from Carolyn Erickson. (Left to right) Richard Anderton, Ron Mildenhall, Carolyn Erickson, Jim Wilcox, Sandy Biel and Gene Mahalko.

Susan Atkinson

Sandy Biel

Colleen and Rick Bliss

Ross Chambless

Tim and Kathy Chambless

Jim Coffey

Nancy Douglas and Ken Morgan

Carolyn Erickson

Frank Globokar

John and Merrideth Hammill

Joe Herring

Nancy Howard

Susan and William Jarvis

Bob Johnson

Julia Kleinschmidt

Richard Lane

Gene Mahalko

Maysa Malas-Kergaye

Jackie and Russ Menk

Ron and Ann Mildenhall

Will Morris

Chad Mullins

Mohammed Mushib

Michael Pennie

Tom Price

Nancy and John Rasmuson

Bill Reed and Di Johnson

Bob Rees

Doug Roberts

Julia Rossi

Lee Shuster

Daniel Southerland

Lee Stanhope

Frank and Vickie Steffey

Suzanne Tronnier

Jim Turner

Tracy Walton

Henry Whiteside

Gary Widdison

Jim and Ellen Wilcox

Balam Yapur