MISSOULA – Taxes are complicated enough for citizens born and raised in America, so for the refugee community of Missoula, filing taxes can be an overwhelming prospect. The University of Montana Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program has partnered with the International Rescue Committee to ensure Missoula refugees a smooth introduction to the American tax system this year.
“Taxes were very hard. I could not do them alone,” said Shewit Hadera, a refugee from Eritrea who described the assistance his family received as a very positive experience. “I am very happy.”
Kate Jennings, senior director of development at the UM College of Business, helped initiate the refugee tax program. She’s a family mentor through the IRC and knew the college’s VITA program could help. VITA is a collaboration between the College of Business and the IRS that offers free tax help to those with low to moderate income.
“There was a lack of understanding of how taxes work in the United States,” Jennings said. “Some of the refugees are coming from communities that do not have banks. They’ve never used checks or a debit card, and so the idea of taxes coming out of your paycheck is very abstract.”
The IRC was eager to partner with VITA. The year-old Missoula organization is the only refugee resettlement chapter in Montana. It assists refugees during the resettlement process and provides support for successful beginnings in the United States.
“It’s pretty exciting because, as I’m sure you can imagine, it can be pretty overwhelming to learn about lots of different aspects of life in the U.S., and taxes are a very complicated subject,” said Jen Barile, IRC resettlement director. “There was a lot of confusion, and people had lots and lots of questions – questions I think a lot of Americans have, too – so they are not alone.”
In the past year, more than 100 refugees have come through the IRC to Missoula, with Congolese, Eritrean and Syrian as the largest population groups. The Congolese population in particular was in need of assistance, Jennings said.
“This past summer, they were already asking about their taxes for 2018,” she said. “They wanted information. They wanted a seminar. They wanted to know what to expect.”
Members of UM’s VITA program – in which certified volunteers from UM, including accounting students, help prepare basic tax returns for the Missoula community – stepped up when the opportunity to help arose.
Business college alumnus Clem Lockman serves as VITA’s site coordinator and collaborates with accounting Professor Kent Swift to manage student certifications. Swift, who focuses his efforts on assisting international students and refugees, agreed to help offer personalized tax filing sessions hosted by the student volunteers of VITA, as well as an initial informational session tailored to the Congolese group.
“He was fantastic,” said Helen Rolston-Clemmer, finance manager at the IRC. “He’s worked and lived overseas for a long time and is aware of how things work in different countries and what things don’t work, and agreed to meet with whomever had questions.”
Swift conducted the informational session in December and, with the help of a Swahili interpreter, presented a basic overview of the American tax system.
After the informational sessions, UM students in the VITA program filed taxes for Eritrean refugees on Feb. 17, Congolese refugees on Feb. 24 and Arabic speakers on March 3, providing interpreters for each group. Beforehand, the IRC provided all refugees with a visual guide, walking them through the information and documents they would need to supply the VITA program with on the day of the tax-filing sessions.
“The refugees were so thankful,” Rolston-Clemmer said. “I think they were very pleased and that they absolutely trusted that things were being done correctly and they were getting good advice.”