All his life, Alaa Aljaleel dreamed of becoming a rescue worker. His father had served on Aleppo city’s fire brigade for 40 years, and he was determined to continue the tradition.
But one job application after another was rejected by the Syrian government, until 13 years had gone by, and he was still working as an electrician rather than driving an ambulance.
Until one day, his home city—Syria’s largest—was transformed into a brutal urban warzone. His neighbors fled. Armed groups seized control. A punishing pro-government siege gradually coalesced, as bombs and airstrikes pummelled the largely working-class East Aleppo neighborhood where Aljaleel lived.
“All of a sudden, I found myself forced to use the car that I owned as a rescue vehicle,” he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim and Madeline Edwards.
So began his self-made career as an ambulance driver in Syria’s embattled Aleppo, one he documents with co-author Diana Darke in his memoir, The Last Sanctuary in Aleppo, released on March 7.
Soon, the father of two was driving to bomb sites and helping the wounded. But there was also other work to be done amid the hell of East Aleppo’s bombings.
“The area I was in had hundreds of thousands of residents. They all left. How many abandoned pets do you think that means were left behind? They were stuck in the abandoned houses or left homeless on the streets.”
So he took them in, in what soon became a full-on sanctuary for Aleppo’s traumatized, abandoned cats.
Now living in a lawless corner of rural Aleppo province following forcible evacuations imposed on East Aleppo when the Syrian government retook the area in late 2016, he still runs a sanctuary for cats as well as dogs, monkeys and other animals.
“Animals need us more than people do,” Aljaleel says. “We can help one another as people, but most of us don’t take care of animals.”
“If we don’t show mercy to animals, we can’t be merciful with one another.”
Q: What was life like under siege? What are the memories from that time that stand out the most?
Many things happened, such as transporting the cats from place to place. From the cat house, where they were living when we were bombed, I transported them to a number of places while also fleeing from the bombs myself.
Also there were children under the rubble who we weren’t able to get out because of the intensity of the bombs. If we had continued [trying to rescue them] we would have also died from the bombs. We couldn’t get them out. They were screaming, ‘We are alive!’ But we had to flee because the army was entering the area, and there was intense gunfire and bombing from the warplanes. So we were forced to leave and run away. We weren’t able to help.
Of course, the area I was in had hundreds of thousands of residents. They all left. How many abandoned pets do you think that means were left behind? They were stuck in the abandoned houses or left homeless on the streets. So I gathered them at my sanctuary.
I didn’t expect to gather the amount of animals that I ended up taking in. I took in 15 cats at first, and we were feeding them our leftovers. The butchers would come by and bring them scraps.
There were few residents left in the area, so I had to stay with the cats and feed them. Thankfully, I was able to help them for a long time. At the end of 2016, when the bombing was at its most intense, some of the cats fled.
Some of them died from chlorine gas. When there were toxic gas attacks, the cats didn’t understand what they were supposed to do, and we weren’t able to control all of them and take them with us to safety. They would go take cover in low-lying areas, which is dangerous in a gas attack. I saw that many of them died, an addition to those who died from shrapnel.
Four shells hit the cat sanctuary. I was only able to save 22 of the cats. I had to transport them from area to area because of the intensity of the bombing. At the time, all of East Aleppo was being hit.
I was able to get the 22 cats out [when East Aleppo was forcibly evacuated at the end of 2016] and set up a new cat sanctuary for them in rural Aleppo province.
Q: You write that all your life you wanted to be an emergency rescue worker. But what finally allowed you to fulfill that dream was the war. Can you discuss your thoughts about this aspect of your work?
Since I was little, it’s been my dream to become a rescue worker, to save people. My father was a firefighter. He served 40 years with the fire brigade in Aleppo. So I dreamed of being like my father and saving people.
So the war came, and I found my opportunity to fill this role as a rescue worker. I felt that the time had come to fulfill my dream: that nobody gets hurt, that I can finally be someone who helps people.
If the war ends I want to continue in this line of work, as a voluntary first responder saving and helping people.
Before the crisis in Syria, I was applying to work in this field—as a first responder or rescue worker—and I spent 13 years trying. Thirteen years that I wasn’t placed anywhere as a rescue worker, even though I was ready for the job. Only the applicants who had wasta [social connections] were getting work in this field. So I wasn’t able to.
So the war happened in Syria, and all of a sudden I found myself forced to use the car that I owned as a rescue vehicle.
Q: You write that a major driving factor in your rescue work is that you “do not care about religion as much as [you] care about people.” How did you come to this decision?
I’m Muslim. I follow my religion and my prophet, Muhammad, peace be upon him. There are people with their own prophets too, such as Christians and Jews. I harbor no ill will towards anyone. I separate politics from humans. People have no relations to governments. Everyone is innocent of the policies of their government.
I now live in an area [of rural Aleppo province] that is under the authority of strict groups. They are against this idea. But here, they aren’t able to do anything to me because they know who I am and that I’m widely respected.
One time, a group of hardliners came to me and said: ‘You communicate with the Crusaders [a slur referring to Christian foreigners], and the Russians who bomb us, and the Americans.’
I told them, ‘I know more about religion than you do. If they are killers then so are you. I communicate with people who have no relation to anything bad.’
Q: You mentioned that the war in Syria destroyed the country’s social fabric. What do you mean by this? Do you see this sense of social ruin among your own friends and family?
There’s a saying, that the revolution is co-opted by villains, governed by cowards and is fought by the honorable. The revolution that began for us was peaceful. But later on, criminals and others entered the scene, and that divided Syrian society.
In my life, I never saw people as Alawite or Sunni or Druze or Christian. We were all brothers. But these criminal people entered the scene and started controlling things and killing us in the name of religion, even though they don’t understand religion at all. Religion is innocent of them.
This has had an impact on the Syrian people and our social fabric. Before, we were all of one heart and we all loved one another. True, we revolted against the authorities, but this was not with the aim of fighting amongst one another.
Q: You write that in wartime, people change: some for the better, stepping up to help others; and some for the worse, becoming fanatic. How have you seen these changes among your own friends and family?
People have changed a lot. The overwhelming majority of them have changed. I have an example. There’s a man who I’ve known for a long time—he used to drink a lot and get drunk. He would go drinking then walk home at 2 am.
When the revolution happened, he became a rebel faction commander and he’d go out killing and kidnapping people with his fighters. Now he talks in the name of religion and talks about the prophet.
One time I met up with him. We used to call him ‘Abu Ali The Drunkard.’ But this time around, he said to us, ‘God has decided on me.’ We asked him, ‘If God has decided on you, why are you hurting people?’
The criminal had become a man of religion, one who was even killing in the name of religion. This is what has happened to Syria.
Q: You’ve said that the intense bombing and siege over East Aleppo heightened your “sense of life.” Why do you think war made you feel this way?
I’ve been face-to-face with death more than 100 times.
We used to have walkie-talkies. These devices would monitor the warplanes’ frequencies, and where they were giving a signal. I would go to that same area that they were about to bomb—imagine, I was going in the rescue car to the areas of death that were about to be bombed, in order to save the people there.
There were days when the barrel bombs hit, as well as missiles and gunfire. God is witness to what I’m saying. There wasn’t a single day that I got even a small injury. Once, a shell landed in front of the car. At the very least, it could have totalled the car with shrapnel. But nothing happened to me. God didn’t allow me to be injured.
So I feel that God is with me. Every time [a close call happens] I feel stronger and stronger.
I have many rescue worker friends who were killed or injured, or who broke their legs. Like them, I am a rescue worker but—thank God—I’m still walking on both legs. Somehow, I’ve been allowed to live and I’m able to help other people.
I think I’m still alive so that I can help others.
Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from working with animals, and cats in particular?
Compassion. The cats make you feel like they need you. They come and sit next to you, as if to say that you are responsible for them. They are like children.
I’m someone who, if I’m upset or bothered by the bombing, I’d go to the cat sanctuary and sit among them—they all gather around you and sit with you or climb onto your shoulders. It helps to relax psychologically. Cats provide calmness.
I feel a big sense of responsibility towards them.
Q: Some people might argue that it’s more important to focus on saving humans during a war. Why do you feel it is also important to save animals?
There are people who criticize me, who ask whether it makes sense for me to be paying attention to animals when humans should come first. I tell them that I do take care of humans.
But animals need us more than people do. We can help one another as people, but most of us don’t take care of animals. That’s why animals are also a priority.
There are many sayings of Muhammad and the prophets about taking care of animals. Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that the vessel the cat drinks from is pure, not filthy, because the cat is pure and clean. She doesn’t dirty the water.
Thankfully, there are people who agree with me and the work I’m doing for these animals.
If we don’t show mercy to animals, we can’t be merciful with one another.