From Refugee to College Graduate

Cathrin Jacob ’18 has logged hundreds of hours helping the underserved and children

By SAYANTIKA MANDAL, USF NEWS Posted Fri, 11/16/2018 - 10:07

After her great uncle was executed in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s regime, and many of her family members were tortured for supporting the anti-regime Communist Party, Cathrin Jacob ’18 fled with her parents to San Diego with only $900.

It was 2000, and Jacob was just 3 years old. Her family lived hand to mouth, in a low-income neighborhood, buying clothes from thrift stores and depending on food stamps, with her father working a minimum-wage job as a gas station attendant. During those early years, her father put himself through auto mechanics to get a better job. 

“At the beginning when we first got here, we had no furniture for six months. We slept on the floor of an apartment that we shared with my aunt and uncle and two cousins," says Jacob. "We had comforters donated to us. During the day, we rolled them up to sit on them and in evening, we unrolled them to make a bed.” 

Yet, education was something her parents always valued. “Knowledge is power," she recalls her dad telling her. 

She chose USF because she was drawn to San Francisco and the university’s Martín-Baró Scholars program, a yearlong living-learning community for first-year students she joined. Martín-Baró scholars live together on the same residence hall floor and attend classes together as a cohort, studying poverty, social justice, and inclusive diversity — and completing related service projects in San Francisco.

Presidential honor

Over her four years, the media studies major volunteered at more than 10 San Francisco nonprofits aiding poor communities and the homeless, among them Faithful Fools, 826 Valencia, Meals on Wheels, and the San Francisco food bank. She logged hundreds of hours and was recognized with USF’s Spirit of St. Francis Award at graduation, given to a student who embodies the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, known for a life of humble service work. 

At Faithful Fools — a nonprofit that strives to give the marginalized a voice through arts, education, and advocacy — Jacob discovered a passion for storytelling on "street retreats." On retreats, volunteers walk the streets and talk with locals and the homeless.

“I realized how there is a silent community out there in the streets that help each other by taking turns sleeping on the sidewalk or watching over each other’s belongings,” Jacob says. “It’s easy to overlook them or just pity them, but Faithful Fools taught me to engage with them, and there is no hierarchy there."

She worked with the clients of Faithful Fools to design and edit a poetry anthology of their writing, which was published her junior year. And at 826 Valencia — which serves underprivileged kids, many from immigrant families, through tutoring and homework — she helped facilitate weekly creative-writing workshops. 

"Giving a voice makes these invisible people visible,” Jacob says.

Telling her family's story

Helping others tell their story made Jacob realize she didn't know her own. Now she’s working on a book and a multimedia project about Iraqi refugees who have migrated to the U.S. She started off with recordings from her family.

“As an Iraqi, there’s so much to learn about everyone’s experiences — most of which is only orally passed down sporadically," Jacob says. "I thought there needed to be some record of these stories and experiences for history's sake, to preserve our memories of political strife, war, and hardships.”

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