Refugee small business owners thrive in Philadelphia


On June 13, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural affairs made a special announcement in observation of the upcoming World Refugee Day on June 20th that will celebrate our city’s unique history as a place of opportunity for refugees and the contributions the more than 3,000 recently resettled refugees living in the greater Philadelphia area.

Refugees, like many other new immigrants, see small business as their path to economic self-sufficiency for themselves and their families. However, besides obvious language barriers, there are multiple other challenges that these new Philadelphians face in their efforts to pursue economic opportunity.

Shasia Willis, Savings Program Graduate, Start Smart Program Graduate & Economic Opportunities Fund (EOF) Client  (Picture courtesy: J. Brough Schamp)
Shasia Willis, Savings Program Graduate, Start Smart Program Graduate & Economic Opportunities Fund (EOF) Client (Picture courtesy: WORC/J. Brough Schamp)

To assist refugees to gain the business knowledge and financing necessary to establish their own businesses, the Women’s Opportunities Resource Center (WORC) established the Refugee Small Business Loan Program in 2013.

“Many of the people we have worked with in this program have marginal access to capital and limited experience with formal business planning and loan application procedures,” says Hani White, Assets Building and Immigrant Program Manager at WORC.

“Additionally, there are cultural differences between the United States business development regulations and those of refugees’ home countries.”

WORC received $195,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, and was one of ten agencies nationally selected this year as a new recipient of the Microenterprise Development Grant.

“I am so appreciative of the funding we received from U.S. Department of Health and Human Service Office of Refugee Resettlement that has allowed us to expand our microloan programs,” said WORC founder and president, Lynne Cutler. “By providing training and microloans to refugees, we help them establish economic self-sufficiency that strengthens not only themselves but their families and communities. The individuals we have worked with so far have been very resourceful and entrepreneurial, and are working very hard to make their businesses succeed.”

Through WORC’s Refugee Small Business Loan Program refugees can get help obtaining appropriate business licenses and permits, establishing or repairing their credit, and a host of other business- related topics. Since the program’s establishment last fall, WORC has awarded eleven loans to a wide range of refugee-owned businesses in the area, with a total loan amount of $75,500, and has more in progress.

“I could’ve never made it through the rough times without the help from Mr. Falcon from WORC,” said Selvadurai Pathmatasan, an asylee from Sri Lanka, speaking about his experience working with Holando Falcon, one of WORC’s loan officers. In 2008, he opened Abi Quick Shop, a souvenir shop located in the Olde City area. He attended a WORC workshop and was able to get a loan this past year to restock his store after prolonged street construction led to financial losses that nearly cost him his business.
Falcon remarked that Mr. Pathmatasan’s story is not unlike other clients he has worked with. “It is really gratifying to be able to help refugees and asylees in our area be able to start and maintain their own businesses.”

WORC partners with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and HIAS Pennsylvania to reach refugees that are loan-ready in Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester Counties. Welcoming Center serves as a centralized employment and referral center for the region’s growing immigrant community and provides technical assistance to individuals to develop business plans that can be funded. HIAS PA has a well-established refugee resettlement program and agency and has a relationship with the asylee community. Both agencies have helped coordinate orientations in various locations around the city and have been very helpful in identifying potential loan clients.

WORC’s mission is to promote social and economic self-sufficiency—primarily for economically disadvantaged women and their families—through self-employment training, support services, savings programs and access to business and financial resources.
WORC’s Refugee Small Business Loan Program is open to refugees and asylees, as well as Cuban and Haitian entrants, certain Amerasians, Afghanis and Iraqis with special immigrant visas, and victims of trafficking living in Pennsylvania.  Loans help fund both start-up businesses and expansion of existing businesses.

Interested individuals can learn more about the Refugee Business Loan Program and apply for a loan directly on the WORC website at or by calling: 215-564-5500.