A crowd-sourced animal sanctuary in east Aleppo teaches compassion: ‘To love the small, weak cats is to love everything’

AMMAN: “Every cat has a story,” says Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, a full-time ambulance driver and part-time cat caretaker living in rebel-held east Aleppo.

There’s Sukhoi, named for a Russian fighter plane, “because he’s so fast.” There’s Zorro the Noble, who defended one of the cats “when the others attacked her.”

“And then, there’s al-Baghdadi, who kills the other cats and takes their food,” earning him the name of the Islamic State leader.

  All photos courtesy of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel.

Aljaleel recounted these and other tales of the more than 170 cats, two dogs and other animals that he feeds and houses in a cat shelter—the first of its kind in Syria—in the Masaken Hanano neighborhood of east Aleppo, one of the epicenters of the Syrian war.

How does Aljaleel run an animal shelter in a warzone? The answer is that he is not alone. An online network of supporters around the world is donating thousands of dollars to help not only the stray animals of east Aleppo, but also the humans experiencing the shortages and trauma of blockade and bombardment.

 “The edges of the shelter have been shelled. None of the cats were injured, but the explosion panicked and scared them.” 

Last year, a violinist and humanitarian activist of Lebanese origin living approximately 2,500km away from Aljaleel in Cremona, Italy saw a report about his work with Aleppo’s cats on Facebook.

“I read about how he was caring for the cats,” Alessandra Abidin told Syria Direct. “I decided to look for him and contact him.”

She reached out to Aljaleel—in Arabic—and together they set up a group on Facebook: Il gattaro d’Aleppo, or “the cat man of Aleppo.”

The group, with nearly 4,500 members, connects Aljaleel with his supporters around the world—in Italy, New Zealand, Morocco, Poland, South Korea, France, the United States and other nations—and coordinates donations for his work with the animals and people of Aleppo. 

In late 2015, with the prospect of stable financial support, Aljaleel opened the Ernesto Cat Shelter in Aleppo, named for Abidin’s cat who died of cancer. Donations by supporters keep it running and allow him to buy food for the cats.

Every day, Aljaleel posts pictures of the cats in the shelter, and sometimes updates about his work as a first responder. Group members comment with messages of encouragement and support for him and the cats.

“After all the rescue work today, all the tragedy and pain – still the cats eat,” wrote one supporter on a recent photo update by Aljaleel. “We love you for showing us what love looks like.”

Group members support Alaa’s work by sending Abidin donations via PayPal or Postepay. The funds raised ultimately reach Alaa through Syria Charity, a French aid organization in charge of the hospital where he works. The money supports the shelter’s cats as well as Alaa’s other humanitarian work in Aleppo.

For example, group members recently donated to help Aljaleel repair his ambulance after it was damaged by an airstrike in Aleppo city last week. In recent days, individual donations by members total €800. The average donation was around €40.

“What many people don’t know is that, through the cat shelter, we’ve collected a lot of donations to help people in Aleppo at all levels,” Abidin told Syria Direct. 

During the one-month blockade of east Aleppo by regime forces this past July, crowd-sourced donations by “my friends,” Aljaleel said, “gave me money to buy food for the people and the cats.”

 Distributing sweets to east Aleppo children during the July blockade.

The cats survived on rice and mortadella—“they didn’t like it, but they were hungry,” said Aljaleel—and Aleppo residents received food. Aljaleel distributed cookies to local children. When rebel forces broke through the blockade in early August, deliveries of food entered eastern Aleppo for the people, and the cats went back to fresh meat and bones.

Aljaleel says that, since 2015, individual donations have paid for “three wells serving 2,000 people in Aleppo, bought two ambulances, and helped many people with aid.”

Donations have also paid for a playground next to the cat shelter, to which local children’s organizations and orphanages regularly organize trips as a distraction from the incessant bombings.

“I heard about the cat shelter through somebody who told me it had a playground next to it that we could take the children to,” said Muhammad, who works at the Aleppo-based Children’s Education House, which organizes activities and games for local children.

“Children have been mentally exhausted lately,” Muhammad told Syria Direct. “The sound and severity of the explosions in the city put a psychological strain on them. We’re trying to take them out places to help with that.”

Most Fridays, Muhammad now takes the children who frequent the Education House out to visit the cats and other animals at the shelter.

“Young children love animals in general,” Muhammad told Syria Direct, remembering his first visit to the shelter. “They were really happy there, in the cat shelter, while they were playing with the cats.”

Cats who were raised as household pets or are naturally friendly sport red collars, so the children know which ones they can interact with safely.

“The children loved the cats,” said Muhammad. “They were carrying them and playing with them in the playground.”

“They were really happy. I was, too.”

 “New cats are always coming to the shelter, bringing others with them.”

The Ernesto Cat Shelter consists of a shady, enclosed courtyard adjoining a house with space for the cats to sleep inside during the winter, and rooms for the basic medical treatment of injured animals.

“The Civil Defense gives me cats who are injured,” said Aljaleel. “I’m no veterinarian, but I make casts and stitch up their wounds.” One of the dogs currently living at the shelter came to Aljaleel with a broken leg, and stayed after it healed.

“There is a firm bond between humanitarianism and caring for animals,” Aljaleel said, “between rescuing an injured person who might die and an animal who has been injured and needs help.”

Two shelter staff members—friends of Aljaleel’s—receive a salary to watch over the shelter and feed the cats while he is responding to bombings or transporting wounded civilians.

‘Compassion is for everything’

When the war reached Aleppo city in 2012 and it descended into an ever-worsening quagmire of violence, Aljaleel chose to stay behind to rescue and care for the residents of his city—human and animal alike. 

“I’ve cared for cats ever since I was young,” Aljaleel, a married father of three and a trained electrician, told Syria Direct. “My family loved cats and I had a few of them…I would bathe them and let them sleep next to me.”

“After the residents fled this area because of the bombing, there was no trash for the cats to eat,” Aljaleel told Syria Direct. “The cats gathered around me, and I would feed them.”

“Compassion is for everything, not just for people,” said Aljaleel. “It’s also for the animals who are wounded, or have nothing to eat.”

After a day in the ambulance, Aljaleel would gather scraps of food and set out to feed the cats in the neighboring streets.  Images of him doing so were widely shared online beginning two years ago, earning him the name “the cat man of Aleppo.” His story ultimately reached Alessandra Abidin, and the cat shelter was established.

‘To love everything’

Because the cat shelter is a boon for the local community—bringing in much-needed monetary contributions that fund a variety of projects—it has also influenced the way some residents view their local cats, Aljaleel told Syria Direct.

“People saw that the cats are the reason for the money that feeds the needy, so they feel compassion for them,” he explained. “They keep a look out for hungry cats in the street for me.”

Before fleeing the city, some residents entrusted their cats—and one dog—to Aljaleel’s care. He tries to make sure that former pets stay inside the shelter as much as he can, “to protect them from the bombing and the cold of the coming winter.”

But some of the cats are unable to forget their departed human companions and are hopeful that—some day—they will come back for them. Those cats only visit the shelter at meal times, said Aljaleel, then “go back to the houses they were raised in, and they wait for their owners.”

Still, like clockwork, twice a day every day at mealtimes, the roving cats of Aleppo come running to the shelter, an olive-shaded oasis.

As a result of Aljaleel’s humanitarian work, the commune of Segrate in Milan, Italy launched his candidacy for a Nobel Peace Prize this past August, citing his “love and care for every living thing.”

“My role as a rescuer is not to differentiate between those who need help,” Aljaleel told Syria Direct this month.

“To love the small, weak cats is to love everything.”

To donate to the Ernesto Cat Shelter, please click here on its Facebook page for instructions.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Mahran Mohammed

Mahran holds a degree in Arabic literature from Damascus university. Originally from Daraa province, he was involved in the earliest peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian revolt revolt. In 2013, Mahran was injured in a regime attack and moved to Jordan. Mahran previously volunteered with Save the Children.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.