Women's Opportunity Resource Center Eases Transition for Refugees in Business

Andrea Van Grinsven, for GPA -- Small-business entrepreneurs are thriving in Philadelphia with support from the Women’s Opportunities Resource Center (WORC).

In particular, the recipients of WORC’s Refugee Small Business Loan Program come from around the globe and have established an equally diverse offering of goods and services in the region: a hair braiding salon, catering company, souvenir shop, handbag line and cleaning service to name a few.

Created in 2013, WORC’s Refugee Small Business Loan Program is the microenterprise development organization’s most recent project to help resettled refugees in the greater Philadelphia region overcome barriers to small business development and establish economic self-sufficiency. So far, the program has loaned a total amount of $75,000, awarded amongst eleven refugee-owned businesses.

5,793 refugees were resettled in Philadelphia from 2003 to 2013, according to a report by the PA Refugee Resettlement Program. The majority of these recent newcomers have been Congolese, Burmese, Bhutanise and Iraqi.

Philadelphia has various organizations that aid in receiving the new Americans, notably HIAS PA and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, both of which partner with WORC. These partnerships help WORC reach loan-eligible refugees with loans, funded by local, federal, corporate and foundation sponsors and donors. The Welcoming Center tends to be more focused on middle-class immigrants, while WORC concentrates assistance on low-income, economically disadvantaged individuals.

Microfinance services like WORC’s have historically proven effective in extending access to financial services for low-income individuals, especially disadvantaged women, both abroad and domestically. As one of the first microenterprise in the Philadelphia region and one of the oldest in the U.S., WORC has drawn national recognition. In 2001, WORC was presented with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Micro-enterprise Development: Poverty Alleviation and the Association for Enterprise Opportunity Innovation in Technology Award in 2005.

WORC’s programs focus on economic empowerment, not to be confused with charity, a point stressed by Hani White, assets building and immigrant program manager and Indah Nuritasari, community outreach specialist. The organization’s programs combine microenterprise and training, incorporating the emphasis on participation found in many models of microfinance services.

Clients taking part in the Family Savings Account (FSA) program are required to attend eight hours of financial management classes. FSA is a matched savings program that helps account holders accumulate enough capital to purchase a home, develop a small business, or fund their education. For immigrants, the classes provide guidance as the clients take their first financial steps in the United States.

Using an FDIC-based curriculum, WORC officers explain how to build strong credit scores, pay back refugees’ travel loans and navigate banking options, insurance and taxes.

Teaching newcomers the complexities of U.S. banking does not always come as an easy task.

“We try to understand the culture before we try to teach about American financial institutions,” said White.

Languages often create a barrier between WORC officers and clients. “A simple form that takes a half hour for some refugees can take up to two hours for others,” said Nuritasari.

In other cases, clients originate from countries where women don’t have financial rights. In her outreach efforts, Nuritasari has observed that potential female clients often lack interest in handling their own finances and prefer to rely on their husbands to oversee their accounts.

Establishing trust with clients is important in order for officers to carry out WORC’s mission, “especially because we’re talking money,” Nuritasari stressed. She draws on her history as an immigrant from Indonesia to relate to WORC’s immigrant clients.

Nuritasari has witnessed that clients grow more comfortable sharing their backgrounds over time. WORC’s classes provide the platform for female clients to have open conversations about experiences with war violence, domestic violence, rape and female genital mutilation.

White and Nuritasari are optimistic that WORC clients can successfully navigate around the hidden problems that immigrants face, namely the legal process and rates of poverty and school dropouts.

“The networking among women is very strong. Female refugees and immigrants are more resilient. They can grow really fast, get jobs and create wealth faster than men,” White said with a smile.

Image courtesy of WORC.