Loans from nonprofit help refugees start businesses

Selvadurai Pathmatasan outside his Old City business, Abi Quick Shop, which sells souvenirs and other items. A loan from the Women's Opportunities Resource Center helped him recover from setbacks.
Selvadurai Pathmatasan outside his Old City business, Abi Quick Shop, which sells souvenirs and other items. A loan from the Women's Opportunities Resource Center helped him recover from setbacks. (VIVIANA PERNOT/ Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 20, 2014

Fifteen years ago, fleeing civil war in his native Sri Lanka, Selvadurai Pathmatasan was admitted to America as an asylee.

A natural entrepreneur, he invested in a gas station, and several years later used $30,000 in profits to open a mini-mart on Third Street near Market Street in Old City. In addition to snacks, his best-sellers were sepia-toned, Revolutionary-era replica documents. His prime customers: Independence Mall tourists.

That was in 2008.

"Any business needs time to establish," he said of the decision to open in the teeth of the recession.

But fallout from the economic downturn, coupled with underground pipe repairs that closed his street for 15 months, nearly undid him. Last year, months behind in rent for the store and his apartment, Pathmatasan, 41, thought he'd have to shutter Abi Quick Shop.

Salvation arrived in April via the Women's Opportunities Resource Center (WORC), a Philadelphia nonprofit that administers a microloan program, begun in 2013, using $195,000 a year from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to help refugees who are small-business owners survive and thrive.

WORC is one of 20 agencies that administer such programs nationwide using ORR Microenterprise Development Grants. So far, ORR has doled out about $4.3 million to applicants.

WORC allotted Pathmatasan $8,000 to repair his credit and restock his shelves with books, scarves, bracelets, toiletries, Liberty Bell-themed souvenirs and other items.

This week, with a nod to World Refugee Day on Friday, the nonprofit announced loans ranging from $1,500 to $15,000 to an additional 10 recipients in Philadelphia and Upper Darby.

Yurfee B. Shaikalee, an asylee from Liberia who arrived last year, is one of them. In January, he started Shaikalee Global Enterprise, an Upper Darby company that ships scrap newspaper to Liberia, where it is used to wrap every kind of purchase.

Shaikalee, who has a background in environmental activism, used his $4,000 loan to buy the paper from newsdealers and ship a container load to Liberia.

The interest rate on WORC loans is 7.25 percent. Repayment terms are six to 24 months, depending on the loan.

In addition to Pathmatasan and Shaikalee, local recipients include a West African catering company, a cleaning company, a hair-braiding shop, and a limousine service, among others. The 11 recipients were chosen from 18 applicants.

At Abi Quick Shop near Independence Mall, Pathmatasan said the WORC loan gave him a fresh start.

"I get about 100 customers a day, but just 10 make purchases," he said from behind the counter, wearing a Rocky T-shirt. In Sri Lanka, where he was part of the country's Tamil minority, his nickname was Babu. In America, regular customers call him Bob.

With his inventory refreshed, he said, he hopes to improve his sales. And with a little more working capital, he said, he would stock other items in demand by tourists, like hats and sunglasses.

A nose-to-the-grindstone type who says he mans the shop alone every day, works three overnight shifts a week as a nursing home aide, and wants training in occupational therapy, Pathmatasan said he learned his work ethic from several gas station customers, successful men in their 80s, who owned apartment buildings, restaurants, and hotels.

"They told me, 'There is gold everywhere in America,' " said Pathmatasan, " 'but you are the one who has to mine it.' "

Hani White, immigrant program manager at WORC, said many people the nonprofit works with lack formal experience in business planning and loans.

There are language barriers and cultural differences between the way business is done in America and in their homelands, she said. For those reasons, applicants generally attend four training sessions about establishing good credit, repaying loans, and applying for licenses and permits.

WORC works with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, an employment-referral program for legal immigrants, and HIAS Pennsylvania, a resettlement agency, to reach out to "loan-ready" refugees and asylees in Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties.

WORC was founded in 1984 to promote social and economic self-sufficiency, "primarily for economically disadvantaged women and their families."

Its program of loans for asylees and refugees helps fund start-ups and expansion of existing businesses. Provided WORC shows evidence of the program's worth, it has a commitment for federal funding through 2017.

"It's a great start," White said. "We'll be able to affect the lives of a lot of refugees."

More information is available at, or by calling 215-564-5500.



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