Ambulance driver Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel lives in the troubled city of Aleppo in Syria – a place devastated by the Syrian Civil War. Yet while the conflict has caused many of the city’s residents to flee, Aljaleel was not among them; instead, he has stayed behind to do something pretty incredible.
Aleppo is the largest city in Syria, as well as the economic capital, and therefore it holds strategic significance in the Syrian Civil War. It has been at the center of the ongoing conflict between opposing forces since 2011.
Rebel forces control the eastern part of Aleppo, while the Syrian government remains in control of the rest of the city. And the conflict has resulted in utter devastation, as the government tries to take the city back by force.
With the aid of Russian airstrikes, the Syrian government is attempting to isolate rebel-held areas in Aleppo and the nearby countryside and prevent them from getting military aid or necessary supplies. Sadly, this also cuts off the citizens of Aleppo who are not involved in the fighting.
These civilians are subjected to frequent bombings and face the uncertainty of whether or not they’ll be able to gain access to basic tools for survival. And while not everyone in Aleppo can afford to leave, an estimated 40,000 residents have understandably already fled the city so far.
Of course, many of these people left their possessions behind in a desperate attempt to find safety elsewhere. Sadly, this frequently included the need to abandon beloved pets.
Naturally, all of these abandoned animals did what they could to fend for themselves. But luckily for the cats of Aleppo, there is one man looking out for them: Aljaleel has stayed in Aleppo to care for its ownerless felines.
“When people left, the cats started coming to me,” Aljaleel told the BBC in September 2016. And the reason why they flocked to him is pretty simple: when he saw some strays near a home that an airstrike had destroyed, he decided to put some food out for them.
And from only five cats at first, he was soon providing food for 20. “Cats always find out when there’s food around,” he told Newsweek in December 2015. Moreover, as more people continued to leave the city, Aljaleel found himself caring for even more abandoned felines.
“There were stray cats that were left behind by their owners. Some people just left them with me knowing that I love cats,” Aljaleel told the BBC. Just 12 months after beginning his endeavors, then, he was feeding over 100 animals. As a result, he established a sanctuary called “Il Gattaro d’Aleppo” on a small plot of land to manage caring for the cats. Now, Aljaleel is aptly known as “the cat man of Aleppo.”
This fate was probably something Aljaleel never anticipated; after all, he was an electrician before the civil war began. But in the conflict-strewn city, he’s had to adapt to helping out in other ways, too.
Indeed, Aljaleel not only works tirelessly to save abandoned cats but humans as well; when the airstrikes on the city began, he became an emergency responder and ambulance driver. He gives first aid, transports people to the hospital and helps in rescuing those trapped in the rubble.
Like many others, moreover, Aljaleel had the choice to leave Syria. But, along with his wife and three children, he decided to stay. “Since everyone left the country, including my own friends, these cats have become my friends here,” he told the BBC.
Aljaleel, meanwhile, spends about $4 a day on food for the cats. Luckily, however, he also has some help, thanks in part to a Facebook page that a Lebanese woman started after reading about Aljaleel’s cats in the news.
Indeed, Alessandra Abidin, a young violinist who lives in Cremona, Italy, created the Facebook group Il Gattaro d’Aleppo as a place for people to aid Aljaleel’s efforts. With over 3,400 members now, the group serves as a worldwide support network to help both Aleppo’s cats and its people.
Donations originally started coming in from group members to help keep the cat shelter open, but its purpose has since expanded. After opening the sanctuary, in fact, Aljaleel began bringing some of the donation money to families still living in Aleppo.
Many of these people were unable to leave Syria due to a lack of funds or because of disabled family members who couldn’t travel. With the help of Abidin and an organization based in France called Syria Charity, then, Aljaleel receives the donations and distributes them to those most in need.
In fact, a recent fundraising campaign by the Facebook group has raised enough money for Aljaleel to buy an ambulance, which he will use to help transfer cats from far corners of the devastated city to his sanctuary. “We must try to never lose generosity and tenderness,” Vita International quotes him as saying. “I am very impressed by the generosity of those who help us and I feel the responsibility to give a good example.”
And the sanctuary itself is not just a safe haven for cats, but for local children as well. It doubles as a playground, where children can come to cuddle with the kitties, enjoy themselves freely and momentarily forget about the war going on around them.
Currently, there are over 170 cats as well as some dogs now living at Il Gattaro d’Aleppo, and Aljaleel has no plans to leave any time soon. “I’ll stay with them no matter what happens,” he told the BBC.