Groups help international students file taxes

The free clinics help students avoid paying for tax assistance.

Volunteer Marea Clarke helps third year Phd student Aditya Pal prepare his taxes. MuslimBUDDY, Inc holds free weekly clinics on campus to help non-resident aliens for the taxes.

Anthony Kwan

Volunteer Marea Clarke helps third year Phd student Aditya Pal prepare his taxes. MuslimBUDDY, Inc holds free weekly clinics on campus to help non-resident aliens for the taxes.

by Amanda Bankston

Mohamed MusaniâÄòs uncle was very excited to hear about his nephewâÄôs involvement with a new IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site on the University of Minnesota campus.
Musani said his uncle told him how difficult it was to find help filing his taxes as an international student from Kenya when he studied at the University decades ago.
âÄúHe was lost,âÄù Musani, the president of the Al-Madinah Cultural Center said. âÄúHe had a really hard time finding people to help him out and ended up paying a lot of money for help.âÄù
Al-Madinah, MuslimBUDDY Inc. and a group of certified volunteers from the Internal Revenue Service hope to save international students and visiting scholars this type of money and stress by hosting free tax clinics for foreign nationals every Monday in the Al-Madinah Cultural Center in Coffman Union.
âÄúThis is a big need for international students,âÄù Duane Pulford, a tax consultant with the IRS who works with the site, said. âÄúIt is a great program. You get a free tax service which can save someone up to $300.âÄù
Though there are other free tax services on campus, like similar clinics hosted by the Minnesota Student Association, income tax return preparation for foreign nationals is a unique and complex area, which makes it difficult for international students to seek help with their taxes, according to Pulford and James Faghmous the founder and CEO of MuslimBUDDY Inc.
 âÄúItâÄôs a really specialized area,âÄù Pulford said. âÄúI would say most H&R BlockâÄôs wouldnâÄôt even offer it.âÄù
In the past, international students have received help with their taxes through a similar VITA program on campus run by a former professor in the Carlson School of Management and his students, Pulford said.
But when the professor retired last spring, so did the program.
This year, the IRS contacted Faghmous, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, to seek sponsorship for the tax assistance site through his organization, MuslimBUDDY Inc., Pulford said.
Faghmous said the opportunity fit into the vision behind his nonprofit, which works with organizations to help them better serve their target populations, rather than directly working with individuals in need.
âÄúA lot of nonprofit organizations try to reinvent the wheel,âÄù he said. âÄúWe donâÄôt like to do things for the sake of doing them. We see a need and find the resources to meet it.âÄù
He said the collaboration between the groups has been a perfect union of strengths with the expertise contributed by IRS volunteers, organization and vision added by MuslimBUDDY and resources, including computers, printers and space, provided by Al-Madinah.
Last week, the initial clinic attracted about 15 international students with no advertising, other than promotional help from International Student and Scholar Services, according Faghmous, who said participants often left volunteers with relieved hugs.
âÄúWhen youâÄôve got a good product, it pretty much sells itself,âÄù he said.
Faghmous said a well-prepared student could finish the process in as little as 15 minutes and recommends that those who register through the MuslimBUDDY website bring the listed documents.
These weekly clinics are only one of the avenues for international students to seek help in preparing income taxes, Duane Rohovit, an associate counselor at the International Student and Scholar Services, said.
Because all of the 4,500 international students and visiting scholars on campus are required to file taxes, the University provides free software, Cintax, which helps them file their federal returns, Rohovit, said.
In addition, he said ISSS provides a list of resources and information about taxes, one of their most frequent topics for questions through their weekly newsletters and website.
Faghmous who admitted to struggling with preparing his own taxes, said the services are necessary to helping international students feel more comfortable in their new community.
 âÄúWhether youâÄôre American by birth or just live here, you still have a duty to society,âÄù he said. âÄúThese people take pride in that duty and this service helps them feel a little more at home so they can forge positive relationships and do what they came here to do.âÄù
The free VITA clinics will be held in the Al-Madinah Cultural Center every Monday through April 11. Services are free and open to all, though online registration is encouraged.
âÄúOne of my biggest hopes is to help international students save a lot of money,âÄù Musani said. âÄúWe hope to grow the program and make it an ongoing thing.âÄù