New loan program helps area refugees, asylees

ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Selvadurai Pathmathasan, also known as Bob, got help keeping his store open and stocked thanks to a microloan program.
ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Selvadurai Pathmathasan, also known as Bob, got help keeping his store open and stocked thanks to a microloan program.
Posted: June 20, 2014

SITTING IN HIS little souvenir shop on 3rd Street between Market and Chestnut in Old City, Selvadurai Pathmathasan said he's thankful that his "dream business" has stayed afloat.

The Sri Lanka native known to customers as Bob, 42, came to this country 15 years ago (first living in New York, then Wilmington, Del., and now Philadelphia).

While in the U.S., he was granted asylum based on his being part of the ethnic-minority Tamils, who faced persecution and violence in Sri Lanka, he said. (He was not a Tamil Tiger "freedom fighter," he said.)

He opened his store, Abi Quick Shop (named after a niece in Canada), in 2008, first as a neighborhood grocery store. He later turned it into a souvenir-and-variety shop, and now sells historical Philadelphia books, copies of George Washington's "Rules of Civility" on parchment paper, Liberty Bell magnets, postcards and decorative Ben Franklin plates.

With construction closing his block to traffic in parts of 2011 and 2012, business really slumped, Bob said yesterday. And during the "horrible winter" of snowstorms, "I didn't do any business at all" on some days, he said.

He didn't have enough money to restock his shelves with chips and drinks. Customers would walk in, then quickly walk out, he said. He thought of giving up, abandoning his shop.

But he got a "lifeboat," he said - an $8,000 loan in April from the Women's Opportunities Resource Center. With the loan, Bob was able to restock his shelves and pay rent on the store.

WORC, a Center City nonprofit on Chestnut Street near 20th, offers loans and other services to low-income and underserved populations. The nonprofit was "primarily set up for the needs of women, but we help everybody," said Holando Falcon, a WORC loan officer.

Last year, WORC established its Refugee Small Business Loan Program to help refugees and asylees in Philadelphia and its four surrounding Pennsylvania counties who want to start a business or who have an existing business.

WORC has been able to provide these loans after receiving $195,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement. The money allowed WORC to expand its microloan program, which offers training and loans to refugees and asylees.

WORC has partnered with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and with HIAS Pennsylvania to reach out to refugees and asylees.

So far, 13 people have been granted loans under the new program, with the loans averaging $6,000, Falcon said.

Although the loan was important, WORC also gave Bob something he was missing here, he said: "They recognized my work."

The center gave him a support system, said Bob, who does not have family here. He sends money home to his parents in Sri Lanka and works hard, hoping to reunite with them one day.

Besides working at his shop seven days a week, Bob works overnight shifts three times a week as a nursing assistant at Chester Valley Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Malvern.

Bob, who has become a devotee of Philadelphia history and the U.S. Constitution, said: "When you have faith in America, once you follow the law and you're hardworking, you're going to achieve your dream."

A convert to the Mormon faith, he credits his new religion with helping him stay positive.

Tomorrow is World Refugee Day, and WORC is hoping that more refugees and asylees will seek training and loans. For more info, call WORC at 215-564-5500 or visit its website,

On Twitter: @julieshawphilly

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