For as long as he can remember, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel has loved animals. And cats occupy a special place in his heart. He has always given them love and affection and a bit of food whenever he’s had the chance.
“Yes, since I can remember, even as a small boy, I have always loved all animals, especially cats,” he tells me. “They have always been my friends and companions.”
He Loved Cats and Looked for Ways to Help Them
For years, Alaa worked as an electrician, feeding stray kitties while he was on his way to different jobs.
But then the bombs began in 2011
What many of us forget, or perhaps don’t realize, is that the U.S. has been bombing Syria for a very long time. As part of Operation Inherent Resolve, backed by NATO and 60 coalition partners, there have been 11,235 strikes in Syria since August 9, 2017, The Conversation reports. However, all of this began well before and continued throughout the Obama administration.
And while former president Barack Obama stands head-and-shoulders above President Donald Trump in many ways, his administration has been largely responsible for much of the destruction in the Middle East. In 2016 alone, The Guardian reports, the Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs — and while Syria and Iraq bore the brunt of this, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan were also targeted.
Alaa became an ambulance driver for a Syrian charity organization and raced from place to place helping people and animals as best he could.
“After the war started in 2011, many of the people in Aleppo city began to leave, but I decided to stay and do what I could to help,” he tells me.
He was torn by seeing so many starving cats and dogs
“I saw so many cats and dogs that had been left behind so I went to the butcher and bought food for them.”
Thanks to his love of cats he earned a famous nickname
“As I drove my ambulance I would stop at various places around the city where the animals would wait for me to bring them food,” he said. “People began to call me The Cat Man of Aleppo.”
Soon he began dreaming of a sanctuary for the abandoned pets. A place where they could be fed and cared for, a place where children traumatized by the incessant bombing could play and learn to love animals.
“But of course I thought this would be impossible because of the money I would need to make a home for them.”
A kind woman read about Alaa and his efforts
Alessandra Abidin has a good command of the Arabic language, and she contacted him and asked how she could help.
“I told her about the cats and my dream of a shelter, but I had no money to make one.”
So Alessandra started a Facebook Group called Il Gattaro d’ Aleppo (The Cat Man of Aleppo). The group is dedicated to helping Mohammad and his furry charges. Over time, people from all over the world donated money to help with the construction of the sanctuary.
“She told me about her cat, Ernesto, who had died from cancer a few weeks before and how she wanted to do something to honor him,” Mohammad says.
They hit upon the idea to name the sanctuary after her sweet kitty, and that’s how the cat sanctuary got its start.
“When the miracle happened at the end of 2015 and there was enough money sent from kind strangers that I was able to buy the land across from my home and build a cat sanctuary we named it The House of Ernesto Cat Sanctuary.”
The BBC documented the story in the video below.
By the end of 2016, the sanctuary was caring for almost 170 cats and many dogs
But times were hard, and Alaa had to scrape and scrabble to obtain enough food for these sweet animals to be fed.
“In 2016 during the siege of Aleppo, I tried to store food to have a constant supply for the cats. I did what little I could to care for their wounds,” he says. “People who were trying to escape would bring me their cats and ask me to care for them.”
When he drove the ambulance, he searched for more animals to rescue
He continued to post photos and videos on Il Gattaro’s Facebook page.
And Il Gattaro helped him to:
- Install a well for drinking water and a generator for 2,000 people.
- Install an additional generator for an underground school.
- Replace four ambulances that had been destroyed by bombs.
- Give financial aid, toys to orphans and kids who were disabled, provide clothing, medications for widows, disabled adults, and poor families.
- Create “The Garden of Hope,” a playground for children right next to the cat sanctuary, giving kids a chance to forget about the horrors of war.
- Provide meals for elderly residents at a Christian monastery.
- Provide funding for people (including Christians) to celebrate the Ramadan and Eid holidays.
- Help support the family of Abu Ward, the very last gardener of Aleppo, who was killed by a bomb.
Il Gattaro also helped the sanctuary host parties for local kids, especially orphans. That gave the local kids a chance to play with the cats, Alaa says.
“In this way, both the cats and the children had the opportunity to love and be loved, trust and be trusted. This benefited both animals and children and I learned then about what a difference pet therapy can make to children and to animals.”
Alaa took in a beautiful little male dog named Hope
The little pup became the sanctuary’s mascot. And Alaa made another new friend — a sweet orange and white kitty who followed him everywhere and wanted constant cuddles. So he decided to name the cat Ernesto (after asking Alessandra’s permission, of course.)
But the bombs became incessant, making life, already difficult for people and animals alike, that much harder.
“Food became much harder to find and the bombing became constant,” Alaa says. “I was only able to feed the cats and other animals rice mixed with a little meat. Even a very small can of meat, when I could find it, cost 60 Euros ($69.89).”
And that’s no error. I checked.
But the very worst day is one Alaa will never forget
On November 16, 2016, his home, the sanctuary, an ambulance, and the Garden of Hope playground were destroyed by bombs.
Most of the sanctuary’s cats died in the bombing…
…and so did sweet, trusting Hope.
“In the end time, the area around the sanctuary was bombed many times and most of my cats were gassed by chlorine gas bombs, or hit by shrapnel and killed.”
Alaa managed to save 22 of the cats by giving them to friends who were fleeing the city. With little Ernesto by his side, he went from neighborhood to neighborhood in East Aleppo, seeking food and other supplies to help the poor, the sick, the children, and any abandoned animals he could find.
“The bombs dropped constantly and then the soldiers came and gunfire was everywhere I went,” he says. “I still tried to help those who needed help in any way I could.”
Every day, he sent photos to his Facebook friends, showing the devastation to the beloved city where he called home.
Finally, on December 15, 2016, while driving an ambulance for the local charity, he and all of the other residents of East Aleppo had to leave.
“I was given no choice. After more than 40 years I left my city, my home of East Aleppo, with a small suitcase, with Ernesto, and with an ambulance full of wounded,” Alaa says. “I had left only my many memories — happy and sad. Thinking of this time brings such sorrow to my mind that I try not to remember it.”
From the ashes
After Aleppo, all Alaa had left was beautiful little Ernesto, his job as an ambulance driver, and his wonderful friends on Facebook. He knew what he was up against, and he knew that it would take patience, but he wanted to open another sanctuary. He wanted to build the sanctuary in the country, well away from the ravaged city, so he asked his friends on the Il Gattaro Facebook page if they could help by sending donations.
They responded in a big way.
“The costs would be very high, but my friends said they would help wherever they could,” Alaa told me. “They shared with others my hopes to build a new sanctuary and soon the members of my Facebook support group grew from 9,000 people to 20,000 people from all around the world.”
Thanks to the benevolence of these people, Alaa was able to purchase land and a partially destroyed building in the countryside of West Aleppo Province, and a new cat sanctuary called The Paradise of Ernesto has sprung up. Local people were hired for the construction work, and another playground, also called The Garden of Hope, was built. Local kids, children from refugee camps, and those orphaned by the war can visit and interact with the cats and dogs as a form of pet therapy to help them deal with the horrors of war.
“It gives them a break from the stress of war, and they learn respect and love for animals,” Alaa says.
Buses, bought with funds donated by Il Gattaro bring kids from local schools and orphanages to visit the sanctuary and the playground.
Another major accomplishment for the sanctuary is the hiring of staff veterinarian, Dr. Mohammad Yoossef. Finding a veterinarian was difficult because most had understandably fled the country when the bombing began. But like Alaa, Dr. Yoossef stayed behind.
Now the sanctuary provides free care for all the animals in the area, not just for those inside the sanctuary. This includes horses, chickens, cows, and other livestock.
But even more important is this:
“Dr. Yoossef has also when the difficult and expensive to obtain anesthesia is available, begun to neuter and spay the cats. Due to the lack of medicines, this will be a slow process but one that we will continue because it is so important.”
The main goal here is to also educate the local people about the importance of spaying and neutering pets. Medications for all of the animals are difficult to find, but Alaa isn’t deterred. The sanctuary was even able to purchase an ultrasound machine and has bought more land next to the sanctuary in the hopes of providing Dr. Yoossef with a full-service clinic.
And the number of animals at the sanctuary has grown apace, with 70 cats and kittens, numerous dogs, four monkeys, rabbits, doves, geese, and a horse.
It is said that love is blind, but so are bombs, which ravage and kill indiscriminately, adults, children, and animals alike. But love, fostered by kindness, can also bloom, and that’s just what it’s doing here.
Featured image by NBC News via YouTube video